Ignite launches free Wi-Fi to connect underserved families in US cities

9th September 2020 Sarah Wray

Consulting company Ignite Cities has launched a COVID-19 Wi-Fi Relief Program in the US to provide fast access for those struggling with inadequate connectivity during the pandemic.

The initiative was launched in July in four wards of Chicago. In partnership with mayors and supported by several wireless service providers and hardware supplier Mesh++, Ignite is now rolling it out in parts of Miami, New Orleans and Columbia, and says it is open to supporting additional cities.

The scheme aims to bring Internet access to students who are unable to access remote learning, and to families looking for employment and local COVID-19 assistance.

The temporary deployments use outdoor, solar-powered Wi-Fi devices from Mesh++ which don’t require any trenching or cables. The service is provided at no cost to the city or its residents. In Chicago, the six-month programme is active in the 7th, 24th, 27th and 36th wards, including several public parks.

The devices can extend single or multiple backhaul connections over a large area.

Mesh++ team installing equipment at Douglass Park, Chicago

Digital divide

The pandemic has highlighted the fundamental importance of connectivity, as everything from education to work, shopping for essentials and even access to critical information and services has shifted online.

The programme is intended to provide short-term relief while broader initiatives, such as the US$50 million Chicago Connected programme, get underway.

Many in the US are still working from home and schools in several cities will remain closed for the time being.

George Burciaga, Managing Partner, Ignite Cities, told Cities Today that the digital divide was one of the top concerns for the mayors his organisation works with, even before COVID-19.

“Standing up public Wi-Fi is a long process. With the shelter-in-place [orders], we recognised that we had to do something quickly,” he commented.

The deployment in Chicago was up and running in thirty days and the process is scalable and replicable across cities, Burciaga said.

“Too often in technology and government, cities are waiting for another city to do something and prove it out,” added Burciaga.  “We’re making hard decisions fast as part of a bigger plan because we understand the critical position we’re in. We’re focused on delivering a strategic plan that reshapes our future, and that future includes everyone.”

Smart infrastructure

Locations for the Wi-Fi kit are planned in collaboration with cities based on alignment with community programmes and needs.

“Every family should have Internet access and we need to do everything possible to resolve this across the country,” said Francis Suarez, Mayor, City of Miami. “We have students who have been unable to fully participate in remote learning and partners looking for work. This programme provides a quick option as we work toward a larger plan.”

Ignite also plans to launch a more extensive infrastructure programme later this year through its collaboration with JCL Infrastructure and Qualcomm.

The group has allocated US$75 million to develop and deliver solutions such as municipal broadband, smart water and smart lighting. The programme will require no upfront outlay for cities as costs will be covered through efficiencies or new revenue gained through the infrastructure.

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