San Rafael, CA – Later this summer, residents and students living in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood will have the option to experience better internet services because of a collaboration designed to reduce the digital equity gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Connectivity is expected to improve with installation of the Canal Neighborhood WiFi Network.
Equipment for the Canal Neighborhood WiFi Network
has been purchased and partnering agencies – including the County of Marin and City of San Rafael – are working out infrastructure installation details for low-cost networks over the next few weeks.
The partnering agencies are working closely with San Rafael City Schools to have one WiFi network provide a web experience for students that is safe and secure, similar to their classroom experience. With school campuses closed during the pandemic, students without strong web access at home are much less likely to participate in online lessons. The WiFi hotspots will be installed where they will impact the most vulnerable students, and the system is expected to be up and running before the start of the next school year.
The other system, with less bandwidth, will be tailored for residents.
The project costs are estimated at $250,000. Key partners in the effort are the County of Marin, the City of San Rafael, the Marin Community Foundation (covering half the expenses with a $125,000 grant), the nonprofit Canal Alliance, San Rafael City Schools, MarinIT, DC Electric, and private donors. The County’s contributions are led by the Department of Information Services and Technology (IST), the Marin County Free Library, and the District 4 Office of Supervisor Dennis Rodoni.
During the May 19 Board of Supervisors meeting, Rodoni said the public health emergency highlighted the urgency for more web access in areas that are economically and demographically diverse. Critical information about COVID-19 is plentiful on websites and other media sources, but the costs associated with strong technological options to obtain that information can be a barrier.
“The COVID-19 has amplified the community’s digital equity issues, most notably for students in the Canal neighborhood who are at home without quality WiFi or without any internet access,” he said. “… The network is part of a larger solution to address the broadband and internet needs in Marin County.”
County IST Chief Assistant Director Javier Trujillo said the idea of more widespread WiFi is not new.
“There have been a number of attempts to do something similar, not just in the Canal but in other underserved areas of Marin,” he said. “This was the right time to build something for the immediate need and try to make it sustainable for a period of time to see if it can be implemented elsewhere. Ultimately it is more a question of longer-term funding sources than it is about the technical ability to install the system.”
Once installed, such a neighborhood WiFi system would cost $45,000 to $55,000 to maintain for a year, Trujillo said.
Sara Jones, Director of the Marin County Free Library, is one of many County employees who have focused on local equity issues and the delivery of government services to the people who need them the most. Mitigating the digital learning gap experienced by lower-income residents has been a significant goal of libraries.
“This is an innovative solution that could provide a proof of concept for other areas in the county that lack affordable broadband connectivity for their students and community members,” Jones said. “It also strengthens collaboration with County library services and the San Rafael Public Library, which should be a benefit to all patrons.”
Katie Rice, Marin County Board of Supervisors President, added: “Maybe one of the silver linings of this COVID-19 emergency is seeing people really coming together, public and private, with our philanthropic community to act on things together and make things happen really quickly.”