Bridging the Digital Divide for Students — Pittsburgh’s Every1online Program
The Every1online program establishes wireless networks to connect underserved Pittsburgh-area students to free or low-cost internet.
In November 2020, the nonprofit group Meta Mesh Wireless Communities partnered with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and KINBER to provide free wireless internet to K–12 households in the Pittsburgh communities of Coraopolis, Homewood, and New Kensington-Arnold through the Every1online initiative.
This blog provides a description of the Every1online program and a question-and-answer with Meta Mesh about the steps they have taken to improve equity of access for students.
To alleviate the digital divide in Western Pennsylvania, universities, research groups, nonprofit organizations, and school districts collaborated to provide free, high-speed internet access to school-age children of low-income families. Each partner organization brought unique resources and expertise to the project, including:
● Meta Mesh Wireless Communities (MMWC): MMWC is a nonprofit networking solutions consolidator responsible for network design, equipment installation, and maintenance for the project.
● Carnegie Mellon University (CMU): CMU’s School of Computer Science and the Simon Initiative coordinated a collaboration between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. The team provided critical start-up funding for the project and liaised with key stakeholders and community groups. They offer ongoing project design, implementation, and fundraising support.
● University of Pittsburgh (Pitt): Pitt is contributing facility access and funding to enable the use of the Pitt Cathedral of Learning as the “Super Node.” With its extensive community engagement efforts, including centers in Homewood and the Hill District, Pitt is also supporting stakeholder and community involvement in additional neighborhoods following the pilot.
● The Keystone Initiative for Network-Based Education and Research (KINBER): KINBER is Pennsylvania’s statewide research, education, community network organization, and network provider to CMU and Pitt. This initiative provides a “gateway” to the internet through KINBER’s PennREN Fiber to be broadcasted from the Cathedral of Learning via MMWC.
● Participating School Districts and Community Groups: The New Kensington-Arnold and Cornell (Coraopolis) school districts and the Homewood Children’s Village are collaborators. Penn State contributes to the project’s progress in the New Kensington area. These local community partners bring vital expertise, leading the effort to build community buy-in, leveraging social capital to facilitate the creation of wireless internet service provider (WISP) infrastructure, and identifying households needing internet connectivity. They also advise CMU, Pitt, and Meta Mesh partners on community needs and intentional partnership practices.
The program uses antennas mounted on top of tall structures to beam internet signals to residents’ homes in the city’s underserved neighborhoods, Homewood, New Kensington, and Coraopolis. A wireless super node sits on top of the 535-foot-tall Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. Repeater nodes amplify the internet signal atop water and radio towers in surrounding communities. Finally, small receivers are placed on the homes served in the three area school districts (see Exhibit 1)
We followed up with Sam Garfinkel, Interim Executive Director at MMWC, to get an update on the initiative and what they are planning for the future of digital equity.
1) Looking back at the last 15 months, can MMWC discuss some of the learnings and best practices that would be helpful for other states looking to improve digital access?
Through the Every1online initiative, MMWC coordinates resources at the hyperlocal (small sections of a community) level to subsidize the $45/month for internet access. Local sponsors such as districts, schools, local groups, and universities in the area donate funding, services, equipment, or physical access to line-of-sight wireless. This hyperlocal focus results in significant buy-in for the partners and allows the collaborative to tailor to each community’s needs. In the end, the local focus resulted in a larger scope of people involved in decision-making. Working at this level has been a solid approach to provide free internet to underserved students.
The success of such a collaborative can be a lesson to other states or areas — keep the focus on subsidizing the internet and develop partnerships that contribute the pieces needed to build the network. Managing time was an obstacle to overcome, from the sudden shutdown to the time needed to accommodate the variety of learning in September 2020 to the present day as the rise of the COVID-19 cases [is] putting the near future into question. Ultimately, the collaborative has navigated successfully through every obstacle in this novel pilot project to date. We are excited to announce our first home connection to the Every1online network in August 2021. We have proved the technical feasibility of our WISP model and our unique nonprofit business approach to providing internet service.
Any group considering this district-by-district, community block-by-block approach should know that building partnerships with the local entities is the most important part of the endeavor. Without the buy-in of the community and all the stakeholders, this project couldn’t continue. The importance of everyone knowing what it takes to provide internet is the key to keeping that support in place.
2) How have your goals changed (or stayed the same) now that many of these students/educators are returning to school in September?
As students return to school, the collaborative will have finished building out the backhaul in one pilot site (Homewood). The collaborative will continue building out the backhaul for two additional pilot sites. We will continue home installations until the pilot sites are finished and subsidize the internet access cost with the support of sponsors. This collaborative will remain place-based and hyperlocal.
3) What are some of the things your teams are planning to further close the digital gap for students?
The successful outcome of this collaborative partnership is to connect approximately 450 households with school-age children to the internet using high-powered radios on top of the Cathedral of Learning that transmits Wi-Fi to these city households. Once the first phase of this project ends, the partners hope to expand to other parts of Western Pennsylvania.
Building partnerships is an essential part of any long-term program designed to connect students and their families to the internet at a free or reduced cost. A place to begin is with your state Department of Education to see what internet infrastructure and partnerships are already in place to get a seat at the table.
Additional exemplars are available in the recently released Home Access Playbook: Strategies for State Leaders Working to Bridge the Digital Divide for Students. The Playbook outlines seven strategies, or “plays,” that state leaders are taking to address home access for students. The plays include examples that can be adapted and implemented across different state contexts. The Home Access Playbook at available at https://tech.ed.gov/home-access-playbook/.
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 University of Pittsburgh Information Technology. (2021, February 11). Every1Online (Meta Mesh) update. https://www.technology.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/documents/MetaMesh_ITAC.pdf