Pittsburgh Works to Provide Better Internet Access for Students, Families

A collaborative effort could bring no-charge public Wi-Fi to neighborhoods.

by Victor Wang, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / June 20, 2016 0

(TNS) —  Doing homework can be a hassle. But for some, completing an assignment can be even more challenging without wireless internet access at home.

Stephanie Cansler, 16, of East Liberty said that in order to complete writing assignments for class, she has to use her sister's smartphone to look up words, write down what she can on paper and type it back on her laptop computer. Other times, she stays at school or goes to the library for internet access.

"We don't have Wi-Fi access at home right now, but we are getting it soon," she said, smiling. "It'll definitely help with that assignment."

Stephanie is far from the only student in the area currently without Wi-Fi at home. According to 2013 census data, 1.1 million homes nationwide and more than 20 percent of homes in Pittsburgh lack internet access.

But Stephanie and other students like her may have the internet at their fingertips by the time they have to turn in their next assignment when school starts again.

A joint initiative by the Kingsley Association, Google Pittsburgh and the City of Pittsburgh to offer free public Wi-Fi in East Liberty and parts of Larimer has seen progress since its announcement in March.

Google Pittsburgh has provided a grant worth $150,000 for the project and has promised two subsequent years of maintenance and support costs.

In the coming weeks, residents of the neighborhoods will see engineers examining the area, selecting optimal installation spots and finally placing 14 to 20 outdoor meshed access points.

The installation process was initially slated to wrap up by late spring, but Kingsley Association's executive director, Malik Bankston, said the new completion date should be closer to the end of summer.

"In my experience, these things can take a lot longer than you want them to," he said. "All the agreements have been worked out on our end, but there is still some field work and site work that has to be done."

Damin Propes, a senior account manager at Velociti Inc, a Missouri-based technology deployment service tasked with the installation, estimated that the procedure should take four to six weeks.

Still, despite the delays and red-tape holdups, Mr. Bankston is confident the free wireless connection should be up and running by the crucial deadline — when schools in the neighborhood open again for their fall semester.

Free Wi-Fi access is not a new concept in the city — a 2006 initiative brought a two-hour Wi-Fi access plan in the Downtown area to invigorate local businesses. A more recent 2014 initiative in Allentown aimed to narrow the digital divide for the low-income area. However, Mr. Bankston believes that the current initiative in East Liberty is part of an evolving narrative about the digital divide, which focuses on the significant educational benefits that free quality internet access can provide to low-income families.

The discussion about the digital divide is no longer about whether families have access to the internet, but the quality and convenience of the connection, Mr. Bankston said.

He added that while many families in the neighborhood have digital plans on their smartphones, it is often challenging for children to complete homework assignments on such devices.

"Kids can't do investigative research and stream media easily on their smartphones," Mr. Bankston said.

Beyond making it easier to complete homework assignments, the educational benefits of consistent internet access are less easily defined. But that is exactly the point, according to Vikki Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University.

Ms. Katz, who has co-authored a study about technology and low-income families, said children benefit most when they are able to explore the internet and learn about things they are interested in — an educational method called interest-driven learning.

"When kids are really interested in something and are given the tools to delve into that topic, they are driving the action and this builds motivation," she said.

Ms. Katz's research found that children without home internet access are less likely to go online to look up information about things they are interested in. Thirty-five percent of those with mobile-only access say they "often" engage in this form of learning, compared with 52 percent of those with home access.

Antonie Smith, 13, of East Liberty said he uses Wi-Fi at home to complete homework assignments occasionally, but mostly uses it to "look up random stuff."

"I use the internet for social media and things like that. But mostly to look up things people say that I am interested in," Antonie said.

Mr. Bankston said he hopes that all children in the East Liberty area will be able to explore the internet from their homes and engage in interest-driven learning.

Still, challenges remain for the fledgling initiative to fully address the community's need for digital integration. For one, there are technical complications in offering strong Wi-Fi access over such a large area.

Mr. Propes said the installation currently focuses on "street-level penetration," which means that people on the streets and in outdoor cafes or green areas will be able to connect with the Wi-Fi. However, he said there is no guarantee how much of the Wi-Fi homes and schools in the area will be able to utilize.

He added that discussions about further Wi-Fi expansion into homes have been ongoing but will need documentations and licensing to move ahead.

Ms. Katz warned that only complete access to the internet can bridge the digital divide.

"You can't reach digital equity unless full, quality internet access is provided," she said. "As well-intentioned as these initiatives are, they don't work unless they go all the way."

©2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.