Bridging the Digital Divide: Maplewood’s Neighborhood WiFi Program is Rolled Out

by The Village Green
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From Maplewood Township:

Maplewood’s WiFi install is in progress!

Eager to bridge the digital divide in town, especially at a time when closed schools created digital classrooms at home, township officials are proudly reporting that its highly anticipated WiFi Pilot program is finally being rolled out this week.

The WiFi Pilot, a community driven initiative that came out on top in the town’s first Participatory Budgeting Contest last year — a program that invited residents to submit and vote for capital project ideas in the public good — will provide free and meaningful access to broadband internet to households in and around the neighborhood of Seth Boyden Elementary [at 274 Boyden Avenue in Maplewood] where there is a high concentration of families with students on free and reduced lunch who do not have access to the internet at home. During the pandemic, these students have been picking up their school assignments in hardcopy along with getting their meals. The aim of the pilot is to prioritize and connect these families as soon as possible.

In collaboration with the South Orange Maplewood School District and Seth Boyden Elementary information technology officials in particular, the township’s vendor DNS (Data Network Solutions) has installed an access point antenna on the school’s roof and necessary equipment to supplement the school’s existing internet service network. The antenna was turned on this week, which enables DNS to begin field testing in the area to determine areas of optimal signal strength and range. The school district has identified eligible households interested in connecting to this service that are within service range. Field tests will determine which of these households can be connected first — in what is known as a Wireless Point to Multi-Point network, customers within optimal range are connected first and as more customers are added to the network, the network grows in strength and coverage. This way, a truly decentralized system is created without any hierarchy in coverage or access.

Township officials hope that the first few households will be connected before the end of the month, if not sooner. The connection in each household requires customer equipment which is also being provided for free. A small fixed outdoor dish antenna will be installed at each subscriber’s home or building, and that antenna will be wired to a connection inside the home. DNS will mirror the existing school district network security, and content firewalls will apply to the closed network.  DNS is responsible for customer support.

A second access antenna will be installed near the Maplewood Department of Public Works at 359 Boyden Avenue on an existing cell tower owned by American Tower in order to strengthen and expand the network.  After the system has been up and running and deficiencies identified, a third access antenna is planned nearby at a location to be determined.

The township’s budget in this pilot phase of the program allows for as many as 100 households to be connected. Additionally, the school district has been working with The Achieve Foundation and the Parenting Center to provide devices to families.

Township officials are enormously grateful for SOMSD’s partnership in this effort, and in particular the District’s Technology Department and Business Office. Township Assistant Business Administrator Glenn Michalowski, who led the technical effort and who worked very closely with SOMSD Business Administrator Paul Roth, said, “The collective institutional knowledge and experience that existed within this community is why we’re able say we’ve gotten this far. The complexity of this project has been both challenging and personally rewarding. We achieved a lot of firsts with this project, and I look forward to the next phases as we start bringing families online.”

Roth added, “On behalf of SOMSD, thank you for providing much needed support to our families and students. The service will go a long way in bridging the digital divide.”

Michalowski also gave a shout out to South Orange resident Seth Wainer whose experience creating Newark Fiber as the former Chief Information Officer with the City of Newark provided valuable support in this effort. “This has truly been a community effort,” he said.

Participatory Budgeting champion and Maplewood’s Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis said, “As an equity activist, I’m thrilled to be able to bridge this big gap for our residents; as an elected official, I’m extremely proud to be part of local government that reflects its public’s values and which recognizes its responsibility in being a source of good in its residents’ lives. We believe this to be a first of its kind anywhere in New Jersey.”  Deputy Mayor Dafis also thanked SOMA Justice and Susan Bergin in particular for submitting the WiFi Pilot proposal.

Former Mayor Vic De Luca who served on the participatory budgeting subcommittee with Deputy Mayor Dafis reflected on how timely the roll out is: “Now more than ever we realize the importance of breaking down the digital divide. We are relying on the internet for school, work, and connections to family and friends. The WiFi Pilot will give access to more families in our community.”

Mayor Frank McGehee said, “The township wanted to empower its residents to enhance our vibrant work, live, and play environment.  The winning WiFi Pilot was a collaborative effort to close the digital divide.  I want to thank Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis for his vision, our Township team, our School District, and the residents who played a key role in making this project a reality.”

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