Broadband Access is a Health and Social Justice Issue — Episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jennifer Hawkins, President and Executive Director of One Neighborhood Builders (ONB), a community development organization based out of Rhode Island. She talks about about the Olneyville neighborhood, situated on the west side of Providence, and how significant health disparities in that community led her organization to jump into action over the summer to build a free wireless network for the residents. Jennifer and Christopher talk about mapping the network, placing hardware on ONB-owned buildings, and putting up 12 access points to cover more than half of the community with robust wireless. She shares why the project’s been worth it, and the health outcomes they hope to achieve once it goes online. 

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Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Jennifer Hawkins: That's what we do. We do complicated things that no one else wants to do. So that's our job. We should just add this to the list.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Jennifer Hawkins, president and executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development organization based out of Rhode Island. She joins us to talk about the Olneyville neighborhood, situated on the west side of Providence and how significant health disparities in that community, led her organization to jump into action over the summer to build a free wireless network for residents. Jennifer and Christopher talk about mapping the network, placing hardware on ONB-owned buildings and putting up 12 access points to cover more than half of the community with robust wireless. She shares why the project's been worth it and the health outcomes they hope to achieve once it goes online. Now, here's Christopher talking with Jennifer.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Today, I'm speaking with Jennifer Hawkins, the president and executive director at ONE Neighborhood Builders. Welcome to the show.

Jennifer Hawkins: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to talk to you because we're doing more on telehealth and I think we're going to be doing a lot, lot more on it as we look at how to make sure people get the benefits of the networks that they're building. And I'm excited to talk more about Providence. I'm fascinated. This is really interesting things happening across Rhode Island, but let me ask you to just start by telling me about Olneyville, the neighborhood that we're going to be talking about in the course of this interview.


Jennifer Hawkins: Great. Yeah, it's wonderful to be able to talk about the neighborhood and thanks for asking me on. So, Olneyville is one of 25 neighborhoods in Providence. Providence is only a city of 190,000 people. The fact that we have 25 distinct neighborhoods is somewhat crazy, but we are a neighborhood about four 10th of a square mile. There's about 7,000 households. It is a strong immigrant community. It used to be Polish and Italians, and now it's Latinx and very diverse within the Latinx population, Mexican Americans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadorians. It has this strong sort of working class kind of ethos. But it's also been a neighborhood, I think that's always fallen on hard times and has been disinvested in by the city. And so it unfortunately has a very high poverty rate. It's about 42% poverty rate and all the kind of other demographics that you would anticipate, right? There's about only a quarter of the population owns their own home. Only about a quarter of the population owns their own car.

Jennifer Hawkins: And so, there's a lot of overcrowded housing, needing to carpool to work. What we say is essential workers is often just a euphemism for poorly paid workers. And that's often the jobs that a lot of the residents in our neighborhood have. And so, Olneyville actually is the hardest hit area in the state for COVID-19.

Christopher Mitchell: And even before COVID-19 I understand, the people that were living in the community already had a significantly lower lifespan on average than others in the area.

Jennifer Hawkins: That's exactly right. Yeah. Not to get too jargony, but people talk about the social determinants of health and that's the 80% factors that have nothing to do, whether you go see your doctor or you take your medication, it's really about those things I talked about. Stable affordable housing, living wage employment, quality education, food security. So all of those factors are really challenged for residents in the neighborhood, which lead to an average of living eight years fewer than residents in more affluent neighborhoods of Providence.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow. So we're going to talk about how broadband, specifically free Wi-Fi access is going to be really important to bringing some equity into the area, making sure people are better able to address these challenges. And what I find puzzling is why an organization that's called ONE Neighborhood Builders is so focused on health and focus then on potentially Wi-Fi and how it can help. So what does your organization do?


Jennifer Hawkins: Yeah, so we do a lot and we try not to do everything, but we're often pulled in a million different directions. So ONE Neighborhood Builders is a classical community development organization. There are these entities called CDCs, community development corporations, and we are one of those. We are a NeighborWorks chartered member. There's about 270 of us across the country. And so we're committed to true genuine comprehensive development in which you authentically engage residents to identify the priorities that they care about for the neighborhood. We achieve our mission foremostly through the development of affordable housing, but we recognize that we can't sort of build our way out of systemic racism and inequity, that it takes more than just addressing housing in the built environment. And so, our second strategy is to address the root causes for health disparities, all those sorts of stuff I've been talking about.

Jennifer Hawkins: And when you really look at that and you think, "Well, if we acknowledge that being able to earn a good wage, being able to obtain quality education is imperative, and because of the pandemic, when you're learning from home, hopefully working from home, trying to access healthcare from home, connect with neighbors and relatives so you're not socially isolated. If you don't have high-speed in-home Internet, you are at an enormous disadvantage."

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: And when I was home in March, it's embarrassing to admit that I actually had that acknowledgement and that epiphany. I was like, "Oh my God, what if I didn't?" And the fact that it took the world and myself personally, to have this pandemic to recognize that Wi-Fi is no longer a convenience, it is a core social justice issue. That's what happened. So we decided that, it is firmly within our mission statement and our mandate to address true neighborhood revitalization to address this equity issue.


Christopher Mitchell: Now, that all makes sense to me. But when I take what you just said, with the experience that I see from other groups that I think also come to this conclusion, and then I couple that within our discussion, you made it pretty clear that you're not the person perhaps that would be solving technical problems on the Wi-Fi network, if any develop. Why were you not intimidated away from this? I feel like... I'm curious how it went that you didn't start down this path and say, "You know what? This just seems too complicated, we're not going to make it." Was there something that allowed you to push through that challenge and come to the point where you're going to turn this network on in a few weeks?

Jennifer Hawkins: I guess it's maybe a little bit of ignorance and hubris. I think if I had known how complicated it was, I maybe wouldn't have gotten started, but then once I got down the path, I was like, "Nothing's going to stop me now." I'm lucky to have colleagues who were able to help out when it got too technically complicated for me, but I just kind of thought we're not trying to bring Wi-Fi to the entire city of Providence, or now even in the entire neighborhood of Olneyville. We said, "Let's just focus on what we can sort of control." And that is the portion of the neighborhood, which is roughly half of the neighborhood, about 6 million square feet, that we said, "Well, we own a critical mass of buildings in this footprint of a neighborhood." I had just been reading up. I'm like, "We can just [inaudible 00:08:54] like lines across the buildings and create this mesh."

Jennifer Hawkins: And effectively, that is what we're doing. Obviously it got far more complicated than that, but at its core essence, it actually isn't any more complicated than that, by virtue of the fact that we have ownership of properties, that the neighborhood is pretty densely populated, that the buildings aren't very tall, we don't also have many concrete or brick buildings, a lot of wood-frame construction. So all of those factors made for that pinging thing to happen pretty easily. But I think, yeah, what drove me and every time we sort of had a hurdle was, "Well, we have an obligation to think of this through and to just... I feel like that's what we do. We do complicated things that no one else wants to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.

Jennifer Hawkins: So that that's our job. We should just add this to the list.


Christopher Mitchell: It's great to hear. To give you a sense, to use an example that I think one of my listeners really enjoy, you don't have anywhere near the resources the city of Cambridge does in Massachusetts. For a number of people in Cambridge, it's a major priority. And even among the city council, it's a priority. And yet they are nowhere near as far along as you are. And so I just want to make that note, and you're the second person who has suggested it's a mix of some naivety perhaps in terms of the challenges. And I think that's really important that we need to learn something from that, but also it's clearly for you and one of those issues that you get your teeth into something and you're not going to give it up unless there's a good reason. You're not just going to say it's too hard.

Jennifer Hawkins: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So, what is exactly the plan? You have real estate, and maybe it makes sense for you to start by just describing how that works and how you plan to set up the network using that real estate?

Jennifer Hawkins: Sure. So, as I mentioned, ONE Neighborhood Builders develops affordable housing. Most of that housing that we develop, we retain ownership of and lease it to low-income families. So in the Olneyville neighborhood, we own about 200 apartments that are located, because most of them are multifamily in about 80 buildings. We retain this company to do a heat map, which I think it was just kind of walking around with this device to see how much strength you have as you go in and out and around buildings. A challenge to our heat mapping exercise is that we couldn't get into any of the properties. Because of the pandemic, we're obviously trying to not go into people's homes and have all that traffic. So, we just had to do the heat mapping by evaluating the perimeter and the exterior kind of bandwidth.

Jennifer Hawkins: And then we selected four locations to have an access point. And then, I guess it was maybe three major locations and then nine other locations to have these relay devices. So a total of 12 buildings will have either the access point or a relay point. So, the engineers, I did not do this... Map that all out and then we recognized... Oh, this was something that, to your point of the naivete, I just thought I would call up Cox, which is our Internet service, [inaudible 00:12:31] be like, "Hi, can we just have a whole lot of contacts with you?" But I pretty soon realized after speaking with the Cox sales rep that that was crazy, that that's not how this works, that I needed an intermediary that specialize in bringing that last mile. So bringing the fiber up from the street into the access, [inaudible 00:12:55] to a lateral. And so we were introduced to Rhode Island's kind of intermediary, they're called OSHEAN. And OSHEAN provides that service for colleges and libraries, hospitals.


Christopher Mitchell: Right. They were a major recipient of the stimulus supported broadband investments 10 years ago.

Jennifer Hawkins: Oh, I didn't realize that that makes perfect sense. And-

Christopher Mitchell: I think so, yeah.

Jennifer Hawkins: ... evidently every state, or I believe every state has a [inaudible 00:13:28] of OSHEAN, because private universities are going to need that sort of intermediary. So OSHEAN helped us identify based on those 12 access points, the best location for bringing the fiber up to the street. And they determined that we needed two places, that one wasn't going to be adequate.

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: It was going to stretch it too far. So we identified two locations for these "laterals." Again, I didn't recognize that this was going to actually be like a big deal. We needed a [inaudible 00:14:05] detail and the whole thing, like you've got to cut open the street. That was a learning lesson, that ultimately is the most expensive component of this is bringing the fiber up to the street and into these laterals.

Christopher Mitchell: I believe it absolutely, but particularly in that such a built urban environment.

Jennifer Hawkins: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: And so now, looking at all this, how did you identify a way of funding all this? I'm sure it wasn't just a matter of saying, "Well, we'll just have to write a bigger check this year."

Jennifer Hawkins: No, not at all. So I am fortunate to have a major donor who this was also a passion of his and I speaking to him about this. And so he challenged me and said, "Well..." Well first, he said, "Do you think we can do it for $100,000?" I was like, "Oh, absolutely. We can cover the entire neighborhood with $100,000." Again, having no idea what that meant. And then I soon realized that that was not nearly enough. And so, he had already committed $100,000 and so I used it as a challenge grant. Say, "I have a major donor who's committed $100,000. We have to match it dollar for dollar to get there." Because it very quickly, the budget went from $100,000 to $200,000. And ultimately it is going to be about $260,000 to do what we're doing.


Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, just out of curiosity, I don't know if you have the funds at your fingertips, but if I had to guess, just because we're trying to figure some of these numbers out as we're looking at Saint Paul's challenges, I would guess you probably have close to $100,000 of radios alone, right? Is that close to it?

Jennifer Hawkins: Yeah. So exactly. There was access points and the relay points were about 75,000.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Jennifer Hawkins: The installation of them is about 75,000.

Christopher Mitchell: And is that largely like to an electrician for pulling power to be able to connect them?

Jennifer Hawkins: That's right. And I thought we could just use our regular old electrician, but we needed one that specialized in data too.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Jennifer Hawkins: So it was a more specialized electrician.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. As I'm rewiring parts of my home occasionally with permits [crosstalk 00:16:24] was like, "You really do notice it's a lot cheaper if you can do it yourself."

Jennifer Hawkins: Yes it is. And we don't have the liberty of doing DIY-

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Jennifer Hawkins: ... at all. Right. No, we definitely need to follow the permits. I think there were three chunks of expenses or four, I would say. First chunk is the laterals. The second is the access points. The third is installation of the access points, and the forth is the ongoing expense.

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jennifer Hawkins: And then overlaying all that was a fee for the engineering, because we really did need someone who knew what they were doing, right? We needed to pay for that competency. And we hired a company called Harbor Networks, which has been really great. Long and short with the fundraising, we did a crowdfunding campaign. We use social media, a lot of Facebook and Twitter and put out on our website saying, "Please contribute, help us match this." And every time we got a sponsor, we blessed it and celebrate it. And so we were able to achieve our goal. And then I also didn't just rely people on going to the website and giving, I obviously reached out to every bank and every kind of organizational partners and said, "Hey, XYZ bank gave 2,500, don't you think you can give that too?" And that really helped us get somewhere in the line.


Christopher Mitchell: Do you if any of the banks took advantage or use this as part of their obligations under the CRA, the Community Revitalization Act? Since you raised that... It's been an ongoing issue for us.

Jennifer Hawkins: I'm guessing so. I believe they probably all did legitimize their donation by claiming CRA credit, which obviously is because this is a low, moderate income census tract. And so we qualify for CRA credit.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, okay. And can you say roughly how many banks you had that joined in?

Jennifer Hawkins: I think we ended up having five banks [crosstalk 00:00:18:23].

Christopher Mitchell: That's wonderful.

Jennifer Hawkins: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So, then I'm curious about the operating cost challenges. So the $260,000, and I know that you're committed to five years-

Jennifer Hawkins: Mm-hmm.

Christopher Mitchell: ... does that include all five years of the operating costs you're expecting to incur?

Jennifer Hawkins: No, it's the first year of operating. So we sort of front-loaded some of our service costs. So it's probably... It's more than the first year because we did front-load some of those costs in year one. We expect the ongoing cost of those five years to be about $35,000 a year, which we can sort of manage. It's not a huge number. I don't think we're going to have to fundraise for that. I think if we can budget for it in the beginning of the year, we can manage that price.

Christopher Mitchell: What does that entail? What sort of things do you have to do with that $35,000 a year?

Jennifer Hawkins: There is, here is another learning. When it's down, what are we going to do, right? We needed a accompany who can then fix it, whether that literally means going up to a roof and seeing, well, maybe an access point is damaged. And so there's part of that ongoing cost is the warranty service contract for our hardware, but then also just serve, like being able to troubleshoot and service it. We are a tech company. We don't want to be able to do that. So we're paying for that service. And also the annual cost to OSHEAN. That's the biggest, it's the biggest cost.


Christopher Mitchell: Oh, that makes sense. If I'm a resident of Olneyville, what would I expect to get? And do I have to... Is it just something that will work in my home? How will I interface with this?

Jennifer Hawkins: And we're developing a frequently asked questions document now anticipating some of those questions. But what we're anticipating is that you click on a little button in the bottom of your device that says, "Find Wi-Fi." And that Olneyville Connects will pop up. And then we are going to be distributing a pass key to all neighborhood residents that they will be able to enter in. And when we say all neighborhood residents, we're trying to define the circumference of that mesh, which is a little more of an art than a science.

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jennifer Hawkins: We're probably going to err on the side of offering... Informing a larger number of people and saying, "We're hoping that you fall under the Wi-Fi, but no guarantee that you're going to, but if you click on and it says that here's a pass key to enter it." And we're anticipating that being sort of soft launch, and then after we sort of see how that goes, we're going to enter into kind of this cloud portal so that when someone goes to enter, they will have to eventually put in their name and their address and their cell phone number, and then we'll text them a unique code. And that will allow us to actually track how many people are utilizing it. What portion of the neighborhood is utilizing it? But that'll come kind of second. Initially, it's just blanket, here you go.

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: And we're saying that it's a Wi-Fi that will be able to penetrate into homes. It's not just sort of a Wi-Fi that you may get at a public park. So it really should be able to service your in-home needs and that it will be of a caliber that students really can learn from home and adults can work from home. We're not saying that 16 people can all be like making videos at the same time, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: But it's of high quality.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It sounds like it's pushing to the limits of what you can do with Wi-Fi today.

Jennifer Hawkins: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: For as far as you've gone, it's not like you're going to be able to build a network that would rival what Verizon could do.


Jennifer Hawkins: No. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So I think I want to come back to this issue of the health concerns and how do you make sure that this will lead to improved health benefits? From my point of view, we often get stuck on just, "Okay, how do we make the access available?" But your goals go beyond just making it available. And so, how are you going to make sure that you get the benefits you're looking to?

Jennifer Hawkins: It's difficult to measure individual health improvements. And we talk about population level health improvements to kind of circle back to that unconscionable statistic of the health expectancy gap or the life expectancy gap, rather. We, through a variety of interventions, hope to see that residents in the neighborhoods, rate of [inaudible 00:23:21] disease decreases, that their rate of inpatient hospital stays decreases, but that's something that's going to be longitudinal. And this is one intervention among many that we are doing to try to see those population level increases. We do employ a team of community health workers that works individually with residents. And we do know that individuals say to our community health workers, "I don't have Internet and my kid can't learn." Or, "I don't have Internet, and how do they expect me to register for my COVID test because I can only do it..."

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: So we hear that information. So we know that it's going to be impactful, but being able to track it, that's not going to happen. We're not going to be able to have that level of outcome information, unfortunately.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you have any partnerships with any healthcare facilities in which they're going to be trying to take advantage of what you're providing to do their own kind of studies and get a better sense of how they can improve their outcomes and services?

Jennifer Hawkins: We do partner with a few different clinical organizations like the Providence Community Health Centers and Integrity Care, New England, and they are a great collaborative kind of healthcare partners. They are interested in those same sort of outcomes we are, but we have yet to talk about the link between Internet access and health outcomes. And I think that that is worth exploring how we can kind of generate some data to show that link there.


Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I want to invite you into the danger zone, where I just start to come up with an idea and probably possibly misremember something that I wasn't planning on talking about. I was working with a group in Baltimore that was doing a rehab of a... It's a RAD project for public housing. And in it, they had thought they were going to be able to put in a clinic that was linked to Johns Hopkins. So residents would be able to basically use telehealth from within a room within this large multi-apartment building. And I don't think it's come to pass, unfortunately, but it seems like the sort of thing that you would be able to do potentially, where maybe people could do something from the room, but perhaps there would be even a nursing assistant or someone able to provide assistance in a room like that with the assistance of a healthcare provider. And probably everyone would win.

Jennifer Hawkins: Mm-hmm.

Christopher Mitchell: Is that something that I'm just missing, like anything in particular or?

Jennifer Hawkins: I feel like the holy grail is to be able to partner with a healthcare system to develop housing that's co-located with the clinic, so there's sort of a win-win and I know of a couple of really good examples. ProMedica did a project in Toledo and Boston Medical Center did a project in Boston. And so the Boston one I'm slightly more familiar with, but it is a clinic on the ground floor and housing above, and I believe in that instance, it's for individuals who had experienced homelessness. So they are among the highest users of emergency medical care and inpatient care. And obviously from a humanitarian standpoint it is incumbent upon us to provide high quality affordable housing, but also from a pure economic standpoint, those are the people who are generating the greatest cost and we want to be able to house them to reduce costs for the healthcare system.

Jennifer Hawkins: So I think that when the healthcare ecosystem understands that it is mutually advantageous to develop housing, I'm right there, I've got my hand raised, anyone who wants to partner with me develop housing, I'm all for it. And we can do the telehealth piece too.


Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So I guess the closing question is if someone wrote you a check and told you they want you to do the other half of Olneyville, just ignore that you don't. What I'm asking you is if you had to do it all over again, what might you do differently? What should someone else avoid doing that you had to learn the hard way?

Jennifer Hawkins: I don't know if I would do anything a whole lot differently.

Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Hawkins: I think that we were able to generate kind of enthusiasm through a breakthrough article that Dan McGowan wrote at The Boston Globe. And I think for about three or four months, we were like, "This is never going to happen. We're never going to raise money. This was so foolhardy." And so I guess maybe that would be the one lesson learned is that generate interest early because the money starts flowing when you can generate some buzz and interest.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. I think that's really important to note because one of the things I've seen in covering community networks is that in the years afterwards, and you go back and you talk about it, it's hard to describe the feeling you had in the middle when you're like three months into it, and you're thinking, "Have I just wasted all of this time for something that's not going to happen? Am I going to have to tell this funder that I can't do it with their money?"

Jennifer Hawkins: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Because I wake up in the middle of the night at times when I'm struggling with things like that, where I don't know if something's going to work out. And so I feel like it's definitely good to get that message out for people who are listening to this and might be in the middle of that to say keep the faith and hopefully you'll get there.

Jennifer Hawkins: It is true. We do, as humans forget the pain, right? Like they always say that if women remembered the pain of childbirth, they wouldn't have another child. So you kind of forget the anguish of those early months.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, thank you for coming on. This has been a really good discussion. I'm really excited at the number of projects we're seeing like yours. I think you'll inspire many others to move in this direction and show that it can be done. And so, thank you for your time today.

Jennifer Hawkins: Well, thank you. You've inspired me, so I really appreciate it.

Christopher Mitchell: All right.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Jennifer Hawkins. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow Muni stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ISR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.