The Broadband Lifeline in a Pandemic: How Your Community Can Quickly Deploy Free Wi-Fi to Meet Urgent Needs at Public Housing and Other Locations

Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, P.E.

Over the past several days we have heard from numerous communites seeking guidance for delivering broadband to unconnected households as fast as possible to meet urgent,  critical needs for remote work and education.

Free community-provided Wi-Fi can be a lifeline during the pandemic. Many people cannot afford commercial broadband services. Others use services with data caps and other limitations. And some who do not currently use broadband may not be comfortable using connectivity or have difficulty self-installing and configuring a device.

Mobile network Wi-Fi hotspot devices can be loaned to people who don’t have connectivity. But this approach has the disadvantage of requiring a separate device that incurs substantial ongoing service fees (whether paid by the community or the user), needs to be separately powered and managed, and may be lost. At best, this represents a short-term, interim option.

Given that the current crisis doesn’t seem like it will be short-term, a more robust alternative is to set up a Wi-Fi network for multi-dwelling buildings such as public housing developments. This approach needs to be customized for each building but would include the same key elements.

1: Ensure there is adequate backhaul to the building. A range of technologies can perform this task. If the building has municipal- or county-owned fiber, this is simply a matter of configuring sufficient capacity. If fiber is absent but reaches a nearby building, and you have line of sight to that building, mmWave, 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or other wireless technology can enable backhaul using a mast-mounted or building-mounted antenna.  (If you don’t have line of sight, 900 MHz equipment can serve the same function.) Failing these options, seek commercial service—preferably over fiber.

2: Install Wi-Fi hotspots. These should be installed in hallways, mounted on ceilings or walls (ideally in false ceilings or crawl spaces), with as much density as possible.  The ideal outcome is that no more than 25 feet or one wall separates user from the access point and there are no more than eight users simultaneously using each access point. You will want to interconnect each access point using a single Cat 5/6/7 cable to a power-over-ethernet switch with a 1000 Mbps port. A good practice in a high-rise is to have a switch on each floor and connect each floor’s switch to a building switch located in the basement or on the rooftop that connects to the backhaul service. Where appropriate, consider wireless mesh technologies so as to reduce the amount of cabling.

3: Connect users to the network. You want members of the public to easily connect to the network. Generally, this is a simple matter. Most people own some form of Wi-Fi enabled device, even if they can’t afford ongoing carrier service. Students may have received devices from their schools. What remains is to provide instructions for connecting:  usually just an SSID and a password. For others who are using city-, county-, or school-provided equipment, ideally this equipment is preconfigured with the needed applications (including remote management) and browser links and instruction screens in the appropriate language. You may also need to lock down equipment to protect against inadvertent or deliberate tampering with the operating system or other components that could compromise the network.

4: Set up user support. Your residents may need a moderate level of technical support. In ideal circumstances, a handful of people at a building or development who have basic technological skills can assist clients or neighbors if they get stuck—using text-messaging or voice calls if needed to enforce social distancing. Additionally, municipal or county staff—or volunteers from local schools or technology companies—could also assist from call centers.

5: Set policies to lessen the risk of network congestion. Gaming and interactive video use considerable bandwidth that may slow your network and limit use for critical needs during this crisis. If a locality wants to control use of its devices or its network (for example, to avoid slowdowns and bottlenecks in the building networks), it may consider blocking or limiting some content or applications on those devices, or within its network. This can be done in the network configuration or the device configuration. (Some applications used for teleworking, such as Zoom, should be whitelisted.)

Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you think through these strategies. 

Published: Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by CTC Technology & Energy