Wi-Fi and Wireless Networking for Community Anchor Institutions

The SHLB Coalition developed Connecting Anchor Institutions: A Broadband Action Plan to provide ideas and actionable policy recommendations for government leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to address the broadband needs of anchor institutions. The ten policy papers highlight connectivity gaps and explain why broadband access is vital to communities nationwide. In the coming weeks, the Benton Foundation will be highlighting each of the Action Plan policy papers. The following is an excerpt of the second paper. Up next -- Reducing Costs: Competition & Infrastructure. To read the complete Broadband Action Plan, visit www.shlb.org/action-plan

For community anchor institutions (CAIs), robust broadband connections, teamed with Wi-Fi and other wireless networking, are the essential elements of a critical infrastructure. In schools, wireless connectivity enables students and teachers to access a variety of online learning resources and pivot towards the educational models of the future that help learners develop the skills to succeed in technology-integrated workplaces. Wireless can help libraries significantly extend their public Internet access capacity and spawn new community activities. In hospitals, these networks are key to supporting wirelessly-enabled medical devices, helping staff transfer patient data and assisting families in navigating the hospital, understanding medical conditions, and obtaining support.

Despite the importance of Wi-Fi and wireless networking, many CAIs do not currently have the capacity and coverage they need. The technical and human elements involved in creating and maintaining wireless networks are often more complex than meets the eye. These elements include ensuring network capacity and quality in an environment of constantly-evolving technology, complying with privacy and security regulations, assessing different technology options, addressing funding challenges, and understanding how CAI wireless networks can help meet universal service goals.

CAIs Face Technical Challenges

For many CAIs, achieving sufficient, reliable wireless access in their facility remains an elusive goal. According to a recent Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey, more than one third (36 percent) of schools were not confident that their Wi-Fi could handle a 1:1 initiative (one device per student). As of 2014, nearly 98 percent of public libraries across the country offered public wireless Internet access, but as demand for bandwidth has increased, connection quality at libraries that have not had the opportunity to add capacity has suffered. Recognizing the critical need for robust wireless networks in schools and libraries, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prioritized “closing the Wi-Fi gap” in its recent reforms to the E-Rate program.

Why do anchor institutions have inadequate Wi-Fi networks? For some institutions, wireless network quality and capacity issues are, in part, a result of ad hoc networks that were built only as resources permitted. Managing wireless networks is an especially challenging endeavor because of the speed at which related technology is evolving, and the number of technical components that need to be considered and aligned for optimal performance. Wireless networks depend upon the quality of available wired networks, which have their own technical challenges. Beyond this, network engineers need to account for changes in physical wireless infrastructure (access points, etc.), as well as in technical standards (such as the new IEEE standard 802.11ac, which helps offer gigabit speed without the wire). The growing “bring your own device” (BYOD) trend poses additional challenges.

CAIs Face Procurement Challenges

Because of the technical complexity of designing and maintaining institutional-scale wireless networks, many CAIs – especially small ones – need to bring in outside expertise for at least part of the process. Yet, getting the right help can be a challenge. Vendors have an incentive to sell institutions more technology than they may need – leading to “rip and replace” scenarios that are not as cost-effective as reworking existing equipment.

Each institution faces unique hurdles related to the particular physical characteristics of its building(s), how and by whom the network will be used, and issues related to legacy network configurations. Requests for proposals (RFPs) based on only very general information, combined with the difficulty of choosing the right technology partner, can lead to several issues. After a vendor has won a bid for a wireless network contract, its more-detailed assessment of the network may reveal the need for a more substantial budget. This can be difficult for public institutions that have applied for funding based on the RFP estimate. (When making use of the E-rate, for example, requests for additional funding can be a challenge.)

One significant way to improve the procurement of wireless network equipment is for state and local governments to offer due diligence support to anchor institutions. An action as simple as hiring an independent expert to conduct a needs assessment at the outset of an initiative can result in a better RFP and a more accurate proposal. Policymakers can also assist CAI wireless network development by ensuring that district and state procurement contract processes are up to date.

CAIs Face Funding Challenges

CAIs need funding to purchase wireless network equipment, as well as for maintenance and upgrades over time. Fortunately, the FCC recently decided to make available $5 billion in funding over the next five years for Wi-Fi and internal broadband connections for schools and libraries in the E-rate program. Additionally, E-rate funding can now be used to pay for managed wireless services. But the E-rate program alone cannot solve all the funding needs of schools and libraries. And other anchor institutions, such as community colleges and community centers, are not eligible for E-rate funding. These CAIs may need assistance to access other sources of funding, whether public or private.

CAIs Can Provide Wireless Internet Access Capabilities to the Community

CAIs – notably public libraries, but also community centers, schools, and others – can also play a role in extending wireless Internet access to residents in the surrounding community who lack sufficient access. Some institutions also partner with companies to help their constituents obtain broadband at home. Libraries provide public access wireless networks, and libraries and schools are experimenting with loaning community members (students, patrons, etc.) internet-enabled devices.

CAIs have also played roles in developing municipal and community wireless networks. Initiatives like these enable CAIs to extend wireless networks beyond their four walls and improve digital equity for entire communities.

This policy paper explores these core issues in detail and offers examples of successful policy interventions that have addressed these challenges. The second part of the paper suggests how policymakers at federal, state and local levels can support wireless networking in CAIs. Find the full paper at http://www.shlb.org/action-plan/papers/Wi-Fi-and-Wireless-Networking-for-Community-Anchor-Institutions/

About the Author

Trained in cultural anthropology and new media, Amelia Bryne is co-Director of DeepTech.org, a research consultancy that focuses on the social and environmental impacts of information and communications technologies. She has worked with the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy, the University of Helsinki, the Social Science Research Council, the Community Wireless Infrastructure Research Project, byDesign eLab, and other public interest research projects and institutions. Her research has been published in journals such as Telematics & Informatics, Policy & Internet, and the Journal of Community Informatics.