Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Connecting A Neighborhood in Need in San Rafael, California – Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 427
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed with stark clarity the impact of the digital divide across the country, and exacerbated the problem especially among the economically disadvantaged and in communities of color. With the onset of a new school year, school boards, city councils, and local governments have been distributing hotspots, equipping buses with Wi-Fi, and subsidizing subscription plans so that students can continue to learn over the summer. This week on the podcast Christopher talks with one community in California that took efforts to connect residents a step further.
Christopher is joined by Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael Director of Digital Services and Open Government, and Air Gallegos, Director of Education & Career for the nonprofit Canal Alliance, who together worked with a coalition of dedicated people to begin building a neighborhood-wide Wi-Fi mesh network over the summer in response to the pandemic, and connect one of the city’s most vulnerable populations: those living in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood. Christopher, Rebecca, and Air talk about how it all came together, the impacts it’s already having, and the forethought that went into the network.
They discuss the city’s work and the participation of local volunteers who helped jumpstart the effort, and the pivotal role played by the Canal Alliance, which has been fighting digital divide in the neighborhood for decades. The group also discusses lessons learned, expanding the network to reach as many resident as possible, and the ways that the coalition has tried to ensure that San Rafael’s Wi-Fi Mesh network works not just for the Canal neighborhood now, but in the future.
For additional detail on the San Rafael project, see our earlier story.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show; please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Air Gallegos: ... moms in tears because they can't get their kids online, and all they want is what any parent wants, which is to be able to help their children learn and to be able to help their children succeed. It's not enough to just put up a network and give somebody a Chromebook. We have to do a lot deeper knowledge and a lot more restorative practices around the divides that we've created and harbored over the last decades.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 427 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For some of us, COVID-19 has been a disruption, causing hassles with the kids and forcing us to adapt to work from home. But for many others, it's destroying their lives in a host of ways we don't see on a daily basis. Today on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael director of digital services and open government, and Air Gallegos, director of education and career for the nonprofit, Canal Alliance, who together worked with a coalition of dedicated people to quickly build a Wi-Fi mesh network over the summer in response to the pandemic and connect one of the city's most vulnerable populations living in the Canal neighborhood.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Christopher, Rebecca and Air talk about how it all came together, the impacts it's already having, and the forethought that went into the network, including planning for power outages by adding generators to strategic places along the network so that a core of it remains online. Now here's Christopher talking with Rebecca and Air.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, speaking with two folks from San Rafael in California. Rebecca Woodbury is the director of digital service and open government for San Rafael. Welcome to the show.
Rebecca Woodbury: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: We also have Air Gallegos, the Canal Alliance director of education and career. Welcome to the show.
Air Gallegos: Thanks for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to talk about this, a fast response that seems to really have a lot of community support to a problem. This is what we want to see. This is the kind of stuff we want to highlight. But I think it's worth for people who have never heard San Rafael, what is San Rafael? Where is it? What's the feeling of the community? Its ambiance? Who lives there? That sort of a thing.
Air Gallegos: San Rafael is located in Marin County in California. It's in the Bay Area. And in particular, the community that we're working with is called the Canal. It's a neighborhood that's within San Rafael, so California, Marin County, San Rafael City and then the Canal neighborhood. When we're talking about the Canal, the reason it's called the Canal is because it's actually surrounded by a canal and actually two overlapping freeways. It's a very, actually, small area, a couple of square miles by a couple of square miles. The Canal is split pretty much in half between residential and industrial space that provides much of the economic functionality of all of San Rafael.
Air Gallegos: And so when we're talking about this community, and the reason it's important to say all those things is Marin County itself is actually one of the wealthiest counties in all of California. The Canal itself actually provides housing for the majority of low-income residents in Marin County. There's a huge disparity rate, which is what prompted this project that we've been working on. Marin County has the highest disparity rate in education in California, and so when I think about the Canal, it's a really, really beautiful place. There are many immigrants that live within the Canal. A lot of times there's crowded housing, but the people that live there are absolutely resilient.
Air Gallegos: They're an asset to our community, and they're really, really hardworking. And during these COVID times, the Canal has really been the backbone of all of our essential workers that help provide for Marin County.
Christopher Mitchell: And Air, I'm hoping you can also just tell us a little bit about the Canal Alliance. What sort of stuff do you do?
Air Gallegos: Yeah, absolutely. Canal Alliance is a nonprofit that's been in the community for 30 years, and we work to end the cycle of poverty for immigrants. The Canal has a huge immigrant population. It's actually almost doubled in the last decade, and so we mainly work with the Latinx community, but we work to help them eliminate poverty through a variety of things. We have a immigration legal services department, a social services department, an education department, a workforce department. And so we really are a central place for everyone to be able to gather and to be able to advocate and develop policy around community needs for immigrants within our community.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, Rebecca, if I understand correctly, you didn't know Air perhaps a year ago. It seems like this is something you've met in dealing with this challenge, so can you just walk us back to what you would put at the beginning of this story behind the wireless project that we're going to be talking about?
Rebecca Woodbury: Sure. And I would actually start that prior to the pandemic, there were definitely conversations happening between different groups around the need for increasing Internet access, especially in the Canal neighborhood. There were these early conversations happening, but I don't think there was a really clear roadmap yet that was really pulling together the sectors around ... I think there was a shared goal, but not a shared way to get there. And so when the shelter-at-home order, though, went into place, and schools moved online, it really kicked us into gear. I think even though we had started having the conversations, we didn't have a plan in place by any means, but I think there was the forming of the cross-sector collaboration that really jelled in this project.
Rebecca Woodbury: Early in the pandemic, I connected with the school district pretty early on, as well as a community member that I knew had some experience with digital divide initiatives, who was actually working on a master's degree at UC Berkeley and lived in San Rafael. I reached out to him really quickly and he, in 24 hours, put together a menu of options with some rough feasibility assessments of what we could start doing. The schools and I, we really just started ... It was like, "Okay, let's try everything." It was like throw the spaghetti at the wall strategy. And so we started buying up hotspots. They were very quickly going on to back order, so we'd find out if we can buy hotspots and we'd just make a big order.
Rebecca Woodbury: We also started to do promotion of things like, a lot of the companies were opening up their hotspots, and we wanted to promote the low cost home Internet options, and also working with families to streamline that process as well, because we were hearing early on that there was some barriers to families getting signed up, so we worked with them. But one thing that was challenging to some of these programs was they were all opt-in programs, and those innately have barriers with them, in addition to things like backlogs and shipping delays. There were still just a lot of gaps that existed.
Rebecca Woodbury: And then another community member reached out to me and suggested building a mesh Wi-Fi network. I had never done that before, but he said he had some experience with that and could draw up some conceptual designs just as a volunteer. His company was actually paying him to volunteer in his own community during COVID, and that he could give up to 10 days of time, which I think has turned into a lot more than that. But we also did some asset mapping. I got my data analyst on the project, and we started to do some asset mapping of the community and put together an initial design concept. And then I reached out to the county, and I mean, it just really snowballed from there, because I don't even feel like I finished my sentence before the county just was completely on board, which was huge for us, because we really didn't have any funds identified at all.
Rebecca Woodbury: And so then we connected with Canal Alliance, and really quickly, we had a great team of people between government, schools, nonprofit, and what I think was amazing is community volunteers, and so we really had this great team of people. And that, as I look back to where we were then and where we are now, I think the reason we've come so far is because we just had this amazing, great group of people that came together aligned around this project.
Christopher Mitchell: Air, do you want to add anything onto that? I'm curious.
Air Gallegos: Just my memory of it is getting a call from Rebecca and her pitching me this idea of putting boosters on buildings and things on streetlights, and me being like, "This is really crazy. Maybe it could work." And her being like, "Do you guys have any buildings?" One of the things, Canal Alliance, we actually have low-income housing, so we actually do have buildings that are in the Canal and we were like, "You could put them on our buildings." And just this really ... I think what I would say is the digital divide for us, for Canal Alliance, we've been fighting this for decades. This isn't a new thing for us. For a lot of our families, that isolation happens when you don't have access to information and knowledge has been happening for a really long time, and COVID just exasperated it.
Air Gallegos: Honestly, it's made it a much larger community issue, even outside of the Canal, because what we're seeing with COVID is how interconnected everyone is. And if you don't have access to go online to make a doctor's appointment, to help your kids get into school, to know where testing is, and then you're an essential worker that's going to work at Target or wherever it is that you work, and you're coming in interaction with the rest of the community, we're actually all way more interlinked than we think. And I think that that's part of what's really driven this project forward, is that we need to understand that we're only as strong as the weakest person in our community. And so I think that that has really helped promote this project.
Christopher Mitchell: The things that you just described I feel like are relevant for any community, in terms of those challenges, but I feel like you actually even have more challenges because most communities, at least here in Minnesota and most of the country, don't have to worry about PG&E deciding to shut off our electricity for days at a time. One of the things that really struck me was how this was an issue before COVID, where the wealthier folks in the county could leave and go to a place that had electricity, but you had a real challenge for getting information to people with no electricity. I think it's just worth revisiting that for a second.
Air Gallegos: We had a PST event even prior to COVID where that really did happen, and Canal Alliance, we had people putting messages, handwritten, getting out on the street and you add COVID on another layer of that, where you can't actually put boots on the ground in the same way of it being safe. And so I think that that's exactly spot on, like, how do we continue to get knowledge out during these times so that we can help one another?
Rebecca Woodbury: Last October, we had an event that I think you're referencing, to which PG&E proactively shut off power in more than Marin County, but Marin County went particularly dark. I think we had some of the most power shut off in the North Bay, and it was pretty eerie, and it was for days on end. One of the other significant things that happened in Marin County is we had more cell towers go down in our county than anywhere else. It was something like 67% of our cell towers went down, so very quickly, we lost our ability to communicate with constituents, and so one of our deepest fears was, "Okay, we're dealing with this crisis, what happens when another crisis happens, and we can't get the word out about it?"
Rebecca Woodbury: Yeah, during that time, every day we would create an emergency update, and we would go out to community centers and other areas and tape these up on the walls of buildings. It was pretty frustrating to try to get critical information out during this time. We are now at a time of ... We have a new thing called rolling blackouts. These are a little different from the proactive power shutdowns. These are having to do with the heat waves rather than worried about fire danger, so we're getting a lot of experience with emergencies these days.
Rebecca Woodbury: One of the things that we've been talking about with the network that we're setting up in the Canal neighborhood is which of our assets are potentially going to be powered by generators during this time, and so we're putting some root access points on things like pump stations and community centers that we will be able to power during these shutdowns. And so while we may not be able to keep the entire network up during a power outage, we think we can create and message which areas of the network will stay up. You might not be able to get it right on your block, but you might be able to get it if you go near to the pump station or near to the community center.
Christopher Mitchell: That's the kind of information that the community will be able to share amongst themselves, "Ask Tommy, he always knows where the Internet works." One other question I had about that, Air, when you're talking about, "We'll just throw them on the side of buildings." I feel like a lot of people are like, "Yeah, I have a drill, I could do that." But you need to put electricity there, and that's more tricky. I'm just curious how you dealt with those sorts of things.
Rebecca Woodbury: We put most of our equipment on streetlights, so that's where most of the wireless access points are. Early on, we worked out an agreement to install these on the street lights, and then we have the root access points that are going in some of the buildings. Those are the buildings that are owned by Canal Alliance, so we're working with them on that installation. And then we're working with the power and everything on the pump station, so we've mapped that out, but yeah, definitely the power. Early on, when we totally didn't know what we were doing, we were like, "Let's put them on ..." It was probably me, like, "Let's put them on bus shelters."
Christopher Mitchell: "Put them in trees."
Rebecca Woodbury: But yeah, we quickly learned what we were doing, and there were people far more technical than I was, on the team, ready to correct my ideas. But yeah, we've worked it out. We're using a lot of street lights. But even with that, it gets complicated. Some of the street poles are owned by the city, some aren't, so it's been it's been a puzzle, to say the least. We've also had some line of sight issues that we've had to resolve, so had to get out there and do a little tree trimming and a lot of site visits. You're looking at Google Maps and you think something could work, and then you get out there and you're like, "Nope."
Christopher Mitchell: Did a lot of the money come from the county then, to be able to do this work?
Rebecca Woodbury: The county has made a significant contribution, and then a county supervisor, Dennis Rodoni, was just incredible at fundraising. He reached out to a lot of other philanthropic arms to get some big checks, and so we're incredibly grateful for the funds that have come in. The Marin Community Foundation donated a sizable amount, and then Mark Pincus donated another big check, as well as some other smaller checks that have come in. So the county, I would say, just knocked it out of the park in terms of contributing themselves and then bringing in the donors.
Christopher Mitchell: As we're talking about how you have sprung into action with this, for me, it's a sign of how many of the people that I'm looking to about this who are saying, "This is a problem, we need to deal with it." And even my own reaction in some ways is like, "All right, let's figure out how to deal with this over the next 18 months. Let's think about some manageable chunk of time." And in the meantime, I guess people are just screwed, right? But you guys have really taken action, and I'm curious. I mean, it sounds to me, in thinking about your story, it's really appreciated, it's important that we actually treat this with urgency, and a lot of people aren't treating it with urgency in other jurisdictions.
Rebecca Woodbury: Speaking for myself, I think one of my superpowers is naivete, and it gets me really far, because I actually didn't know what it was going to take to make this happen. And so that not knowing just pushed us into gear and just everyone was so positive and had this can-do attitude. And that's why I think the team that spontaneously, in a way, or almost by happenstance, we all came together, we just all worked so well together, and with this can-do attitude. There was no one in the group that was like, "Well, that's not going to work because of X." Everyone just jelled in terms of like, "Let's make this happen as fast as possible. And if anything pops up in our way, let's steamroll it."
Christopher Mitchell: Air, I'm curious also, how do you feel about that, the urgency? And do you see in other areas that people aren't getting this? They're just waiting on it.
Air Gallegos: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a combination of both. One of the things that's been wonderful about this project is we've been living with deep inequities in the Canal for a very long time, and I think what's interesting about COVID is giving us an opportunity to build something new and build something different. It's allowing space for adaptivity and creativity to really happen, so that in some ways has been a really big blessing of everyone coming together, and no idea is crazy at this point. We live in a very crazy world, and we have to be willing to try everything.
Air Gallegos: I remember even when we really started jumping on this, we hired some of our youth as promotoras to be able to go out into the community and see what the community need was and really assess what the digital divide looked like on the grounds. Those youth looked at me and they were like, "Air, is this really going to happen? Can we do this?" And so I think part of that, too, is how do we look at new fresh ideas? How do we see our youth as being just as wise as our elders? All of these different things. And that's what has been able to drive forward this project. But I do think that, of course, there are still people that are going to be left behind.
Air Gallegos: This is a step towards the right direction, right? This is the first step that we're really taking and making it happen pretty quickly, but this is not completely resolving the digital divide, and I think that's really important to make clear. We still have tons and tons of people who don't have access even after the mesh network goes up, because of those deep inequities that have existed, crowded housing, not being able to ask your landlord to change your Internet access provider, living in cinder [inaudible 00:20:21] cinder block buildings that Wi-Fi doesn't actually come through.
Air Gallegos: There's a lot of holes and gaps that we're still seeing on the ground, and so this is a really great, great first step. We have to continue to take action and continue to move forward, because I really think at this point in time, especially during a pandemic, information is now an essential utility. It's like having water and food. It's a human rights. And so if we don't continue to move forward in this way, we're really doing harm to our entire community, not just the people that we might consider to be lower income, et cetera. It really does harm everybody that lives around us. And so yes, this is a step in the right direction, and we're looking forward to continuing the process.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that's really important to note. And similarly, we've been talking about the network without really defining how it works. And so Rebecca, let me just turn to you and ask, is this a network that is aimed at trying to get people connected inside their homes? Is it mostly out in the open? Is it a mixture? What do you think about in terms of the goal of the network technologically?
Rebecca Woodbury: The first phase is really an outdoor Wi-Fi network, but the apartments that are street facing are going to have pretty good access, so there's a number of homes that will have access to the network. But again, we're using street lights. We have a couple of buildings that are involved in this first phase. We see a natural second phase as one that engages with some of the property owners. Air just mentioned, some of the buildings are these cinder block, and they have these interior courtyards, which means that there are a lot of more interior apartments that are not going to have access to the network at all. And so the second phase that we want to quickly move into is working closely with those property owners or those property managers and seeing how far we can extend that network into those courtyards to reach those other apartment buildings.
Rebecca Woodbury: This is a Wi-Fi network, it does not replace good, solid, wired Internet connections in homes. That's also the next work. Speaking to Air's point, this is just the beginning, and we really want to work towards those. I see both of those efforts being really key. Even if we were to reach the goal of getting every apartment connected to wired Internet in that neighborhood, I still think this Wi-Fi network adds a lot of value. If you think about your cell phone bill and the cost of data, if you are walking outside and you're able to tap into a free Wi-Fi network, and not your data plan, you're going to have a much lower cell phone bill.
Rebecca Woodbury: I see these two things as being both really important goals, but the network that we are doing right now, again, it was the thing that we thought we could do the fastest. And so yes, it's predominantly an outdoor Wi-Fi network that we're hoping can extend as far into these apartment buildings as we can get them.
Air Gallegos: To the point you made before, Rebecca, during a power outage, which we've had quite a lot, the wired Internet at home, although that's the best and having everyone have digital broadband would actually solve the digital divide, in an emergency of a power outage, those things are also going to go out. So I think this is really thinking about, how do we have a multi layer, multi tiered approach so that we can make sure that we're building sustainability for the future and not just the issues that we've been having in the past?
Rebecca Woodbury: Right. And to that point, one of the things that we've done with the landing page, that when people log into the network, the first website they land on, we've curated that with critical emergency information. So we're using that, and that's going to be our mechanism for getting critical information out during a disaster. Soon as people log in, they're going to see the most critical information. So right now, you land on there, and it tells you where you can get a free COVID test and critical health information right now. As soon as we're going to need this in a power outage, it's going to have different information. So we're going to use that landing page as a communication vehicle.
Christopher Mitchell: Are you also surveying people? I think I saw something along those lines to get a sense of how people are using it.
Air Gallegos: We have definitely been surveying people. We actually started this entire project, we really wanted to be able to understand community need by doing surveys. We knew that there was a digital divide, but part of the problem is when people have tried to measure the digital divide before, we're using digital technology to measure the digital divide, right? So we're sending surveys out over email or a variety of different tools, and one of the things particularly in the Canal is a lot of people who are immigrants don't have access to have their voice be heard. So what we did is we hired promotoras to be able to be on the ground to go different places that we could make sure that language wasn't a barrier, that literacy wasn't a barrier for people, and not having Internet access wasn't a barrier.
Air Gallegos: A lot of people that live in the Canal, many of them speak Spanish, but sometimes Spanish is their second or third language. They might speak an indigenous Central American language, et cetera, and so we had that. A lot of people that we work with in our education department are considered SLIFE students, which means they have limited or formal education, so they might have only gone to school to second grade or third grade, so literacy is also an issue. And then also, you can't use the tool that you're trying to measure to be able to send it out. We did a lot of research in the area, and we just found that the disparity was huge. Canal residents, only about 43% of them owned a computer at home, compared to 90% of people living outside of the Canal. That's a huge difference that talks about digital inequities.
Air Gallegos: And so once we were able to measure all of this and see where we are, I think our goal is to continue to measure through the landing page, what people's experiences are of the mesh network, and then to continue throughout the year getting back out and on the ground to see if we've made a difference in any of this data, like, can we ask the same question and see that more people are connected? One of the other huge questions we asked is whether or not your Internet is fast enough to load a website in 10 seconds? A variety of other questions, and most people said no. When you think about this, we really started, I think ...
Air Gallegos: Rebecca, correct me if I'm wrong, but we had really started with an ambition of just K–12 education, and the fact that we had tons of students that weren't able to get to school and do the online learning, and then we really realized, "No, this is bigger. This is a community project where all information now during COVID is moving into an online platform, so we need to have a broader and wider reach." But that's where all this information really drove forward the passion of this team to make a difference, because we have tons of people that are living in the Canal that need better access.
Rebecca Woodbury: This project really did get spearheaded by the schools in some ways. I mean, there was that initial, like, "Oh, my God, the kids." But then we did, we quickly realized we want to make sure that we are definitely solving for this online school so we can try to prevent the educational equity gap that is immense right now. But then we certainly identified this need for just general community information access to all of this great information that is out there and that a lot of people have access to, and then there's a lot of people that are left behind.
Christopher Mitchell: That, I think, brings up a point that the additional challenge can be digital literacy. Are you able to, in midst of all this work, also offer some kinds of training or point them in the right direction for families that need that sort of a thing?
Air Gallegos: Yeah. We made that definitely a part of our project. We actually have launched a second donation fundraising campaign to be able to, hopefully, not only fill some of these gaps with hardware. We're seeing that only 40% of people own their own computer, so we want to be able to gift computers to the community so people can get connected, but then we also need to teach them how to utilize those computers. We have tons of parents who haven't had that connectivity that might have received a school Chromebook but aren't sure how to power it on or how to login or how to get onto Google Classroom or don't have an email address. And so there's a lot of layers of digital literacy that we still need to implement, and which we've seen become a huge barrier.
Air Gallegos: We have a lot of community partners now that are actually working with the school district to be able to see, how can we do two forms of digital literacy? How can we do an on the ground support for people who really need support in terms of figuring out how to plug it in, how to turn it on, people who've never used a mouse before or a keypad before? And then how can we also filter other people who need more long term digital literacy around like, Google Classroom or Zoom but can click on a link and join? And then how can we do that from a distance and be able to support? We're still working on setting up all those things at the same time that we're launching the mesh network, but the need is really huge.
Air Gallegos: From Canal Alliance perspective, we have families that come to us every single day, moms in tears because they can't get their kids online, and all they want is what any parent wants, which is to be able to help their children learn and to be able to help their children succeed, and so that's something, I think, that we are also committed to. It's not enough to just put up a network and give somebody a Chromebook. We have to do a lot deeper knowledge and a lot more restorative practices around the device that we've created and harbored over the last decades.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I just want to really emphasize that, because what you just said I think should be emotionally powerful. It should be emotionally jarring for people that have been able to transition to working at home and feeling like the pandemic is mostly a problem for other people in terms of, "It is an inconvenience for my family, but for other people, it can be really devastating." And so I just want to, again, highlight how important it is that you all acted quickly. Rebecca, I think you wanted to jump in.
Rebecca Woodbury: One of the early questions we were wrestling with was tech support. We're setting up this network, what happens-
Christopher Mitchell: That's the biggest cost, yeah.
Rebecca Woodbury: What happens when people have trouble with it? One of our early ideas, and this is also bridging into the digital literacy, is that we've got a small library branch in the neighborhood, and they're doing curbside pickup right now, and so one of our early ideas is they are going to become also tech support. That you can walk up and talk about troubleshooting with the network, or, "How do I get on?" Or, "How do I do this?" And they're all bilingual there. That's one of our early ideas of how to solve some of the tech support challenges that might occur when people are trying to log into the network and not able to. Again, it's a small walkable neighborhood, and so we want to advertise, "Between these hours, you can walk down to the library and you can talk to a person who can help you connect to the network."
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Rebecca, I want to come back to something that I wanted to ask you about, which is, I'd seen in some of coverage, including my own, from Ry and our team, that there were some holes in the Comcast Internet Essentials coverage. I've tried to give them praise where they're due. That program has brought millions of people online, and they deserve credit for that. They've done more than any other national company in this direction, but I'm curious about what holes you observed in terms of things that you had to address that you felt wouldn't be addressed through that program.
Rebecca Woodbury: Big picture, I think there's always innate challenges to any opt-in program. Any type of program where somebody has to sign up for something, where somebody has to give personal information to any kind of company, there can be fear, there can be literacy challenges, there can be eligibility challenges. Some are real and some are perceived, and the perceived ones can be just as bad as the real ones because they stop people from even trying. I think it's important to explore things that are really reducing the barriers as much as possible, and not creating signup processes for things.
Rebecca Woodbury: One of the early wins, and actually Comcast was great to work with, was the schools came to Comcast and they said, "Look, every student here is on reduced lunch, can we streamline the process so that families that go to our school don't have to prove they're eligible? If they say there's families from this elementary school or this school district, can that eligibility be streamlined?" And Comcast worked with them on that, and that was, I think, a really great win to streamline those eligibility issues. I think one of the things that we don't have a lot of data on, but I'm still exploring and need to do more research on, is whether Comcast Internet Essentials is even available in every apartment building.
Rebecca Woodbury: There's a lot of dishes in the neighborhood, which leads me to believe that Comcast may not even be able to get in to some of these apartment buildings. So that's something I want to research a little bit further. And then, again, I alluded to it earlier, but for some immigrant families, putting their name and address on any sort of form, there's some fear associated with that. There's barriers in a lot of ways to this. Also in thinking about what are our real end goals, if you can ... There never should be an end. But what are our bigger goals around this? And in my opinion, it's really ensuring that every household there has access to affordable and really high quality Internet.
Rebecca Woodbury: It's not enough to me to give people Internet. It should be good and usable. I think that we should be striving for things that are even better than the Internet Essentials in terms of bandwidth and quality. I think that it is a really great start, and it is a really great program, and it's connecting a lot of families, but I think inevitably, there are gaps that need to be addressed.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. And Air, I'm curious what you can tell us about what we know in terms of how many people are using the network at this point and things like that.
Air Gallegos: I mean, we're still in the early stages of it, so I don't know that we necessarily have that data yet. We still haven't gotten all of the stages up, so I'm not sure that we can answer that. But what I do love about what Rebecca just said is I think this project and what really drove it forward is this real idea, which was that I was happy in all of our partnerships with, which we kept expressing and I think everyone really heard. You have to meet communities where they're at. And a lot of times, I think we don't ask people where they're at, or what's going on, or taking time to slow down to be able to understand that, and I think that this group really did do that.
Air Gallegos: You have things like public charge and tons of other things that people really are living in fear, especially during a time that's so uncertain and things are changing all of the time. To be scared of being deported or choosing between putting food on the table and getting your kid to school, that is not an okay choice for a parent to have to make. And so I just really want to refocus on that, of you have to be able to meet the community where they are and be willing to come up with things that are innovative. And asking for people's names and addresses and all of these other things produce a lot of barriers for people that live in our community. I think this is a great first step to actually seeing what the community need is.
Air Gallegos: And then I also just wanted to mention that it's just been a great partnership too. We don't have full numbers on how many people are connected yet, because the whole network is not up, but we've been doing wonderful and innovative things of also meeting the community where they are, like we're creating a tutorial video in both graded English and graded Spanish that has pictures that shows people, has subtitles for accessibility. And we're going to be texting it to everybody that lives in the zip code that the Canal is located within, both from Canal Alliance and from the school districts, so that there's not an accessibility issue and that people can actually learn how to connect their cell phone, how to connect their students' Chromebook, et cetera, in a really simple way. And I think that's another great example.
Air Gallegos: We've really tried to think, at every single different angle, like, "How can we put the community in the center and really understand what that community need is?" And I think that's what's made a difference in the partnership. It's not just relying on an outside network, right? Whether it's Comcast or AT&T or whatever those things are. It's really reversing the role and saying, "What does our community actually need versus what is being offered?" If that makes sense.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes.
Rebecca Woodbury: I don't have numbers as of today, but I know that last week is-
Air Gallegos: Brand new.
Rebecca Woodbury: ... pretty new. And actually, we haven't done super heavy promotion. We really just did heaviest promotion in the small area where the network is first available, which we're really talking about a couple of blocks. In the first couple of days, we just put out signs on the blocks that said, in English and Spanish, "Free Wi-Fi is available on this block." We put those out on the streets, on the sidewalks, and within the first couple of days, we had several hundred unique visitors, which surprised us when we were just talking about a couple of blocks worth of a neighborhood. We were pretty impressed by those numbers. I don't have the numbers from this week, but that was within the first couple of days. It was pretty exciting to see more people logging on and checking it out than we expected.
Christopher Mitchell: Rebecca, I have one final question, which wasn't mine, someone else had come up to it, and that's the question of, at this point now that you're an IT expert and network design wizard, if you had to go back in time and you didn't have a person with that technical expertise able to volunteer their time, do you have a sense of how another community might be able to move forward if they don't have that fortunate situation?
Rebecca Woodbury: We had so many volunteers that sprang up from this-
Christopher Mitchell: Someone would have had that expertise.
Rebecca Woodbury: Really, they're everywhere. Look for them-
Christopher Mitchell: In Marin County.
Rebecca Woodbury: No, but I mean, I really do think ... I guess, reach out to communities that have done it. I mean, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to open source our model and talk to others about how we made this happen. You're right, we were lucky that we had some pretty stellar community volunteers. One of the volunteers that came on board to donate, I don't even know how many, at this point, hours of his time, is somebody who has expertise building mesh networks on private islands. So you're right, that is a Marin County specialty.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but I think your point is correct, that it's a barn raising. I think there's a lot more willingness in our communities to step forward and figure this out than people might assume.
Rebecca Woodbury: Yeah, I do. Seeing the volunteers that come from the community and come from local businesses to just say, "We'll absolutely do this for free." I mean, we had a local electric company offered to do all the installation on the streetlights for free.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow.
Rebecca Woodbury: It's been incredible to see everyone come in with the real dollars in hand, and then also the pro bono services in hand, that's really made this happen. One of the things I love about working in public service is the way that we can scale good ideas across the world is so inspiring. I love that about public service. We're not in competition with any other community out there. So the more we can open source what we've done and create these playbooks for other communities to learn, the better. That's, I think, why most people are doing this kind of work.
Christopher Mitchell: Any closing comments there?
Air Gallegos: Yeah. I think just to add on to what Rebecca said, we have other areas in Marin that are just as in need as the Canal, and we've already been in conversations around what would that look like to be able to put it into more places. I think there's a fine balance between sharing all of that information and still doing what I talked about in terms of really centering the community and the community needs, because what works in the Canal might not work in another neighborhood, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Air Gallegos: There's going to be different issues and different things that come up. So I think, exactly what Rebecca said, what's great is there's so many people that are willing to share their knowledge, and also we need to make sure that we're really centering the people from whom we say that we're serving or we're trying to make a difference for. It's really their opinion and their life that is being lived that matters, so I think it's a combination of those two things. I think on Canal Alliances perspective, we have felt very blessed to be a community member that's been involved in the conversation that's been able to really lead change in the community.
Rebecca Woodbury: Yeah. I absolutely agree that honoring the local expertise, that boots on the ground and elevating that is so critical to success. I think that the power of this project is the people that have made it happen, and that we've really had such diversity on the team. From technical expertise to community expertise to fundraising expertise, there's just been all the right people at the table, all with a can-do positive attitude, all with bigger dreams than might be possible, but it's always good to reach higher. Because if you try to reach too low, then nothing good ever happens.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. You might accidentally succeed. I've studied hundreds of different community approaches, this one is one of the most inspirational, particularly for this time, and so I just really want to thank you. I want to thank everyone involved with it, and I hope that this inspires lots of other people to build on it. Thank you very much for your time today.
Rebecca Woodbury: Thanks.
Air Gallegos: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Rebecca Woodbury and Air Gallegos. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast.muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. 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 427 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.