Wireless Mesh Brings Durable Change in Rhode Island - Episode 575 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jennifer Hawkins, CEO of One Neighborhood Builders (ONB). ONB is a nonprofit organization based in Providence, Rhode Island that works to improve lives through housing and community connection. In 2020 we spoke with Jennifer about the wireless mesh network the nonprofit piloted to address community needs at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It launched to much fanfare, and ONB has been steadily working to increase its reach and impact since.

After three years and half a million dollars in capital costs, the ONE|NB Connects network has improved its wireless service to 100Mbps symmetrical speeds. And while not everyone in the Olneyville neighborhood can access the network inside of their homes (it's a gap network, after all), with thousands of unique users per month able to access reliable connections for as long as they need, Jennifer tells Chris that they are starting to see the benefits for households facing significant health and economic disparities in the community. They end the show by talking about how ONB is using the expertise it has built along the way to plan for even more durable changes: baking wired infrastructure into new affordable housing MDUs.  

Read a case study of the impact of the ONE|NB Connects network for more.

This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript 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.


Jennifer Hawkins (00:07):
But if there could be an organization that is sort of the expert and understands the local scene, right, having an expert that can support that scaling of it makes so much sense.

Christopher Mitchell (00:23):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell [00:00:30] at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul Minnesota, and I'm speaking today with someone who is on almost three years ago, Jennifer Hawkins, president and CEO at One Neighborhood Builders in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome.

Jennifer Hawkins (00:45):
Thank you very much. Great to be back

Christopher Mitchell (00:47):
And I've been really curious how things are going and I'm excited to get caught up on what you're doing, but the first thing I'd just like to clarify for folks is what One Neighborhood [00:01:00] builders is. So what do you do?

Jennifer Hawkins (01:02):
We are a nonprofit organization that's based as you said in Providence, Rhode Island, actually work across the state of Rhode Island to improve lives through housing and connecting community. So what that really means is that we seek to address the affordable housing crisis, which has become so much more acute in the last few years through developing and preserving affordable housing. And then we also convene neighbors and like-minded [00:01:30] organizations to work to address health disparities and barriers to economic mobility in Providence. And then thirdly, we use our experience in doing that work of being a backbone for a place-based initiative, developing and managing affordable housing to improve policies and lead to systems change. So that's our full circle work to accomplish our mission.

Christopher Mitchell (01:59):
One of the things that [00:02:00] I think I understand about what you do and I love is that I feel like you are very focused on structural change. There's a lot of people out there who are trying to do good who I wonder, we know in 10 years what will they have accomplished. You invest in places, you build them up, you make sure that they're there for the long-term, and I feel like I hope that your work in broadband is a part of that. Also. It's long-term strategic thinking.

Jennifer Hawkins (02:26):
Yeah, thank you. That is always our effort [00:02:30] to have more durable change and yeah, our work in broadband I think is an example of not only doing a proof of concept here in the Ville neighborhood of Providence, but also pushing on the system and trying to pave the way for entities in the state and at the municipal level to really the [00:03:00] digital divide and the equity gap related to broadband.

Christopher Mitchell (03:04):
And I think one of the things that we won't have time to talk about, I'm guessing because so much I want to ask you about is that you are hearing from lots of other folks who are watching what you're doing and they're trying to copy that. So that is a good sign. You mentioned Ville, this is where you're focused for the broadband work. This is an area of high poverty, a lot of immigrant communities and a particular lack of access to health information and access healthcare access.

Jennifer Hawkins (03:30):
[00:03:30] That's correct, yes, exactly. So Providence is a pretty small place. It's about 190,000 people and it has 25 distinct neighborhoods. And so Ville is one of those 25 neighborhoods, has about 3,500 residents, and it's quite small, it's very densely populated, and it also had the lowest in-home rate of Internet [00:04:00] in Providence and really pretty much across the entire state of Rhode Island. It also, I should say was the area that was hardest hit by Covid-19 infections and fatalities had the greatest number of any zip code in the state. There was a lot of things coming together around 2020.

Christopher Mitchell (04:23):
And in 2020 we spoke toward the end of 2020 about how you were getting involved to try to help change [00:04:30] those facts on the ground. That was episode 4 53. I just looked it up really quick for people that want to go back. I would recommend listening to that first. We're not going to repeat ourselves very much, but you built a whole network and I just pulled the stats from your report, which we have a link to in the show notes, a great case study of what you've done in the case study. It noted that at that time you had installed two hubs, 12 access points more than 24 transmitters to provide free [00:05:00] Wi-Fi, Internet access along major arterials in the community. What am I missing when I just throw numbers out there to people? What were you looking to accomplish with the network?

Jennifer Hawkins (05:11):
We were really just trying to be able to address the fact that families didn't have access to reliable high-speed Internet so that their kids could learn from home or the parents could work from home or they could do telehealth, et cetera. So [00:05:30] I think underneath that, those numbers is just this note, this kind of real core idea of there was real inequity that families here in this neighborhood we're seeing. And so we didn't set out to be an Internet service provider. That's ultimately what we have become, and now we're trying to actually figure out an exit strategy for that. But that's ultimately what happened and we've expanded [00:06:00] those access points and kind of swapped out some of the technology because technology changes so rapidly in this space that what we originally had utilized, we recognized wasn't equipped to reach the high speed numbers that we ultimately wanted to have get.

Christopher Mitchell (06:25):
Yeah, it looked like you were originally providing around 20 megabits symmetrical, which is, [00:06:30] it's a decent connection. You're able to do video learning and things like that if you have a high quality connection at that. But it seems like you both wanted to provide a higher quality connection to make sure that people really could do all the things they need to do, but also you wanted to get to more devices because you didn't hit your target number of homes that you wanted to or families that you wanted to reach. And so you reconfigured, you have equipment names in your report for people that really want to dig in and look at the specific [00:07:00] models that you were using for equipment.

Jennifer Hawkins (07:02):
Yeah, exactly. And I honestly don't remember the names of all the equipment and I don't want to misspeak, so I would suggest that folks download the case study that's available on our website. We do all the specs there, but that's exactly right that we are now able to achieve a hundred megabytes per second up and down. And so that's really has become the new standard that I think is even a kind of reflection [00:07:30] that a few years ago, 20 symmetrical was the standard and now it's really more like a hundred. So we are able to achieve that through the improvements in the system. And as you noted, we really kind underwhelmed by the uptake. We sort of had plateaued in getting new users and we realized it was that they were getting dropped off or it wasn't fast enough, there was holes in the mesh. [00:08:00] So we sought to strengthen the mesh network so that it really attracted more users.

Christopher Mitchell (08:09):
And I think it's important to note that the goal was not to connect everyone in their homes in the entire neighborhood. That is something that is beyond your capacity and you recognize that you're trying to provide what we would often call a gap network, the terminology that we've used at least, which is to make sure people have something [00:08:30] if they don't have anything in their homes. And so I would expect that if people live in an apartment building along one of those main arterials, maybe they can get it in their homes, but for other people they're going to be going outside possibly to get it and download things and that sort of a thing.

Jennifer Hawkins (08:45):
That's exactly right. We did not set out to replace commercial services, but to really serve as to compliment that, and we do see that there's thorough fares [00:09:00] of the neighborhood where the signal is particularly strong. We were thinking that people will go to that area to connect or maybe they're in a restaurant that's along there, or there might even be retailers that using it for their point of sale transactions. So we set out with the intention of it's going to be in home mostly the residential areas, and you really don't know. You can't control [00:09:30] how people use it, but we are finding that it is beyond just simply homes that other people are visiting the neighborhood and then are logging on as an example.

Christopher Mitchell (09:45):
Right. Although it did strike me. I mean there was this note, I mean I thought maybe, oh, people are wandering by, but there's a quoting from the report. By June of 20 22, 1 MB Connects had an estimated [00:10:00] 2,500 unique users of the free Wi-Fi network. That's not too surprising for me. It surpassed your goal. What shocked me was on average users are connecting to the network for 308 minutes per connection. That's an average. And that suggests to me that it is not people wandering through the neighborhood so much as people who are really taking advantage of your investment.

Jennifer Hawkins (10:23):
Exactly, yes. But for this, they wouldn't have an alternative [00:10:30] too, right?

Christopher Mitchell (10:31):

Jennifer Hawkins (10:32):
Yeah, we saw that this past August had our greatest increase in unique users. So we had 24 more people in the month of August, 2023 join on join than before. So every month we check new users. And so for whatever reason, there was a really significant uptick in that month, and we definitely do see that summer has [00:11:00] the highest usage, which you could also say kids are home from school that could contribute to it. People are around more. But yeah, it definitely has been interesting to track the data. We also see that you can see whether someone is logging on via their phone or desktop, and you would also conclude that it's in-home users as opposed to transient users based on the desktop sessions. And [00:11:30] so we had in two year to date in 2023, so I think the data was pulled back in the end of August. We had 8,700 desktop sessions. So there's obviously some duplication there, but there's a lot of people using it from their home devices

Christopher Mitchell (11:49):
And my desktop. Would that also include laptops? Are you

Jennifer Hawkins (11:51):
Yeah, exactly. Just not a phone or

Christopher Mitchell (11:55):
Mobile device. Right,

Jennifer Hawkins (11:56):
Right. Yep.

Christopher Mitchell (11:57):
Okay. Now I want to talk briefly about costs [00:12:00] because I do feel like a lot of people who are really focused on this, they might say, why don't you just connect everyone? I'm guessing that would cost more than 10 times what you had expected. You noted that you started this with a wealthy donor who, or I, a donor who is generous, I should say, I have no idea If the person is wealthy, they were willing to do a hundred thousand dollars and you said, oh, we could build a network for that. And this is a network that includes a number of wireless hubs, transmitters access points to fiber optic runs to [00:12:30] connect them. And I remember when we talked, you had realized it would cost about twice that. In the report that came out last year, it noted that the capital costs had been almost $500,000

In capital costs, another a hundred thousand dollars in operating expenses. And I don't think it incorporated your time, but you've done a lot of advocacy around it and also raising the funds and making sure that it was useful. You hired two interns to help with outreach and things like that. And so I think people [00:13:00] should appreciate that A, it is expensive to build an effective gap network, but the cost of building out to all of Ville, I mean I don't know offhand, but I would assume it's on the order of more than 5 million, approaching 10 million to get everyone connected, and you don't have that kind of funds,

Jennifer Hawkins (13:16):
Right? No, that's exactly right. And because we really didn't know what we didn't know in the beginning, we had wildly underestimated the costs associated with this, which I think I had [00:13:30] mentioned before that it was a good thing because I think it was if we had recognized that it probably would've been too daunting and we wouldn't had started. But once we sort of made that commitment and were going along and the price tag raised, we just said, okay, well we need to raise more money. So yes, as the report noted it, ultimately the capital costs were about 4 75 shy of $500,000. Then we've [00:14:00] now, our annual costs are about $65,000 a year. We were able to streamline that. So that's the annual cost, and that is no staff time. That is just what we pay for our providers and all the service contracts associated with broadband.

But if you add in my time and my team's time, that works on it, that would be certainly much, [00:14:30] much more. But it's an interesting question. What is the full cost for covering the entire neighborhood? Our mesh network covers about two thirds of the neighborhood, but probably only of that two thirds area that is covered, probably only half of that or two thirds of that area is really, really high quality. The heat map will indicate as you move further away [00:15:00] from the access points that the broadband diminishes in quality. But think about that. That is 65,000 for say half the neighborhood on an annual basis and $500,000 original investment. So it's probably not 5 million. I think that's way more than it would cost.

Christopher Mitchell (15:20):
Well to do fiber to the home, to do fiber to the home. I think it might, yeah. If you were going to really say we're going to build the permanent solution, if the state, for instance wanted to say [00:15:30] we're truly going to address the gap here that is left behind the city has access through commercial providers, but as we've seen in many places, there are just things that there's a population that their needs are not going to be met the same way that other private businesses don't perform social services. There's a reason that we have government and nonprofit organizations that focus on problems of poverty.

Jennifer Hawkins (15:55):
Exactly. Exactly. It's not economically viable [00:16:00] right now.

Christopher Mitchell (16:01):
I'm curious, we know how many devices have accessed it. Do you have a sense of whether people have been able to use it for telehealth services and things like that?

Jennifer Hawkins (16:10):
So we can look without being too big or we are able to see patterns of use and we can see that there's a percentage of sites that are related to banking and e-commerce, a set of sites that [00:16:30] are related to streaming services, so your Netflix and music and so forth. So while we can't get into people, people's personal information, we can see general types. That is one of the types for sure.

Christopher Mitchell (16:50):
You don't necessarily need to say this person is going to these sites, but you can say in aggregate, we know that our network has moved this much information from Netflix and this much information from [00:17:00] other entities.

Jennifer Hawkins (17:01):
Exactly right. And so that I don't have that data right in front of me, but we are able to look at those chunks, like I said, streaming or commerce, educational buckets. And the fact is that whether you're using it for any of those purposes, you'd like to think, oh, I'd like to see more educational use and less entertainment. But you know what? [00:17:30] The fact is that we all use it for all of those complicated reasons and low-income people have just as much right to use it for all those reasons too.

Christopher Mitchell (17:43):
Yes. Yeah. I mean the cost of taking four people to the movies is far greater than the cost of Netflix for three months. Yeah, exactly.

Jennifer Hawkins (17:51):

Christopher Mitchell (17:53):
What is the role of your interns then in terms of One of the things that we find with these networks is you [00:18:00] make them available and people may not know about them. If they know about them, they might not trust it enough to use it. Even if they want to use it, they might not really know how to get on it for the first time. So what have you had to do to help make sure people can take advantage of it

Jennifer Hawkins (18:14):
With our two interns? And then subsequently, we actually worked with this brilliant woman who is steeped in continuous quality improvement and how you make very micro changes [00:18:30] to nudge changes in behavior, really a human centered design focus. And between all of that work, we realized that asking for a passcode was a barrier. So we had all of these kind of flyers and banners and we did a lot of door-to-door outreach. We had our interns tabled at the local food pantry as [00:19:00] an example to say, you

Christopher Mitchell (19:01):
Had a parade. Yeah,

Jennifer Hawkins (19:03):
We have terrain. That was excellent. I love the parade. We drove around honking with a bullhorn and we let folks know about the Wi-Fi, but the interns working one-to-one with individuals and saying, okay, give me your phone. Let's go on here, see if you hit this button and then one NB Wi-Fi pops up, click on there. They're like, oh, wow, that's great. [00:19:30] So literally just that real handholding process was effective, but we recognized that the class code was really deterring people. We tried to make it as simple as possible, but you were going to forget it. And so we got rid of it. So that was a test that we did a continuous quality improvement test. We're like, okay, for two weeks we're going to not have the passcode and see, and it really, it changed. It really had a big uptick. So we're like, okay, we're getting rid of it. [00:20:00] So we did these kind of micro changes.

Christopher Mitchell (20:03):
So at the beginning, if I wanted to come into town, I would need to know a passcode to be able to access the Internet, and then it got to a point where I would just, my device would connect and then I would just go on without having to put in any special information.

Jennifer Hawkins (20:15):
That's right. Exactly. Or also originally we asked these three questions, do your rent or do you own what your street address is? And do you currently have Internet in your home [00:20:30] and you could put your street addresses like X, XX Pine Street. We didn't test it for authenticity or anything,

Christopher Mitchell (20:39):

Jennifer Hawkins (20:41):
We were trying to just get a sense of who the users were. Again, we found that while that was really good information to have, it was yet another barrier to people. They were like, why are they asking me these questions? What are they going to use as information? So we really tried to remove all of that [00:21:00] information and prefer to gather points around how many devices are connected or what type of device through the back channel of our service as opposed to putting it upfront so people had to answer these questions in order to connect.

Christopher Mitchell (21:21):
Now, one of the things I saw is that it looked like you were going next into something that's a bit of a hobby horse of mine, which is what I would consider to be the low hanging [00:21:30] fruit of high quality access in multiple dwelling units and apartment buildings. It looks like you were raising money to be able to connect every unit in a building with a high quality connection directly. How is that going?

Jennifer Hawkins (21:44):
Yeah, so that's what we're trying to do next, moving from, okay, this is a community based solution to now a housing based solution. So we have a housing development project that we are going to be starting construction on in [00:22:00] hopefully God willing, February, and that will be 39 new apartments and a five story elevator building. And we want to make sure that is that we have free or very low cost, high speed Internet for everyone. And so we are evaluating using the affordable connectivity program or not. Frankly, I'm concerned that [00:22:30] the ACP program as it's known as will be exhausted and that there may not be a continuation of federal funding for it. And so if our program is predicated on receiving that $30 a month subsidy, that might not be a smart move. So we're trying to figure out a system that we do ourselves as opposed to connecting people with a commercial provider and then they receive the subsidy to offset that cost.

Christopher Mitchell (23:00):
[00:23:00] Yes, and I'm curious then you drilled expertise in providing services. If you're building a brand new building, you have different wiring options. Have you looked at what it's going to take to make sure that every unit is wired in a way that will be future proof and give you maximum flexibility?

Jennifer Hawkins (23:18):
That's where we need help. So if any of your listeners can provide us with some technical assistance, there is another organization that I have a great deal of respect for [00:23:30] called poa, POAH. It's preservation affordable housing, but they're known by their acronym and we've been speaking with them because they have also made a sort of similar commitment to ensuring access, digital access and their buildings. So we're kind of trading advice to one another, but I think that this is the next step is how do we build it and [00:24:00] it just becomes almost like a design spec. We have this type of double hung windows and we have this type of oven and we have this type of broadband so that we can just sort of rinse and lather and repeat at all of our developments with the understanding that technology changes all the time too.

Christopher Mitchell (24:19):
Yes. So I'll say that anyone who's listening to this show is capable of finding one network builders and you, I'm also very happy to connect people to you. I [00:24:30] will say that I would recommend nothing less than cat six cabling or potentially a fiber optic to the unit. I think you'll find different people have different preferences and I'd be happy to, I will try to dig out some of the consensus opinion and share that with you. But the other thing is I think people will be suggesting some conduit to be able to, if in 15 years you want to add something else to be able to lower those costs, I think those costs will add very little to the cost of construction [00:25:00] on the front end given that how expensive it's to build everything today, including some extra conduit and some extra wires. Shouldn't add very much to it, I would think.

Jennifer Hawkins (25:11):
Thank you. I'm writing that down and I'll definitely take you up on any future information you can find. That's excellent.

Christopher Mitchell (25:18):
Yes. And so then I think the other thing I wanted to just ask you about was you mentioned that this is something that you may not want to be in 10 years still in ISP. What are you thinking about along [00:25:30] those lines?

Jennifer Hawkins (25:31):
So when we originally set out to do the one MB connect in Ville, we said we are going to ensure that this will run for five years. We'll maintain it and provide high quality service for five years. And so now we launched in November of 2020, and so we're coming up on three year anniversary of that and we recognize that we need to figure out a sustainability strategy and so we're talking to the state, [00:26:00] the Rhode Island Commerce department that is serving as the entity to apply for bead funding and other sources from the state and put together the statewide plan. So they've been really great partners and they appreciate what we've done to sort of provoke the conversation locally, but that's where we're looking for someone to, meaning really the state or the city to either take this over or replace it with even something better. [00:26:30] We can't do this forever. It's a different commitment if it's in a building that we own and it's for the residents of the building that we own. That I think is a longer commitment, but if it's more about kind of broad in the community at large, I think that we need to put some parameters around that.

Christopher Mitchell (26:50):
And I'm curious, I think these things are difficult. You've mentioned you've substantial staff resources. You've put into this as you hit that five years, [00:27:00] you're going to be facing hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to keep the network alive as you're replacing various active components of it. Is it primarily the financial challenge or is it just also the management of it that you fear as someone who is responsible for so much?

Jennifer Hawkins (27:16):
Definitely both. I mean, yes, there is a financial consideration, but having just completed our new strategy to guide us for the next five years, I'm committing myself to becoming [00:27:30] better at saying no, not just so good at saying yes. And I think that this winnowing of what is core to our work and what are we uniquely positioned to do versus what a partner should do, and so this idea of us starting something and spinning it off to someone else to ultimately implement or to carry on is I think appropriate. That is the same [00:28:00] example that we did with that afterschool program at our local elementary school. We've been operating that for five years and we've now just found a partner to take over operating that for us at the end of June. So similar sort of idea, similar, how will we be an instigator for good work?

Christopher Mitchell (28:19):
It is not surprising to hear you say this. I think this is a really important conversation. We've talked with people in other cities who want to be where you're at, but I also think the reality of the financial [00:28:30] and the staff commitment is significant. I feel like we have to have an organization like yours that launches it because of the trust you have within the community and a knowledge I think, of the community and how to interact. At the same time, I do feel like ultimately what we'd like to have is some sort of nonprofit organization rooted in the community who would be specialized in this and ideally, frankly, we'd see city and state support for it because [00:29:00] as we talked about, this is a service that deals with poverty, and so that's the sort of thing that I have no idea if there's room for that in Providence, but to me that seems like an ideal situation would be some entity that is focused on connectivity that would be there for the longer term.

Jennifer Hawkins (29:17):
I think you're completely right, Chris. It quickly becomes incredibly complex and technical and for a whole bunch of organizations that [00:29:30] are working in different geographies or with different populations that they all have to bone up on this, it seems really inefficient, but if there could be an organization that is sort of the expert and understands the local scene, what are the local city and state agencies that have resources and who are the players like both in providers of the Wire and Ocean is [00:30:00] the technical provider that we use. I think having an expert that can support the scaling of it makes so much sense. And then you can partner with organizations like One Neighborhood Builders to get it going, but that there is an entity that kind of outlives the one-off projects. That would be really great. Why don't you come to Rhode Island? Start that up.

Christopher Mitchell (30:29):
I would enjoy [00:30:30] that. I've enjoyed multiple times. I've been in Rhode Island, but I'm committed to being snowed on more often than you get. This has been wonderful. I really appreciate your time and I really, like I said, that case study that you produced, your organization did is chockfull of great information. I hope people will check that out and yeah, I look forward to checking in again to seeing how things are going with expansion.

Jennifer Hawkins (30:59):
Please do. [00:31:00] I would really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much for your interest in our work.

Christopher Mitchell (31:03):
Yeah, thank you.

Ry Marcattilio (31:04):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni networks.org/broadbandbits. Email us@podcastmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets follow muni networks.org. Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, [00:31:30] 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@sr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Sby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.