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Working for Justice–and Internet Access–Together

When schools switched suddenly to remote learning last spring, Valerie Cruz faced a problem. Like many Partnership parents, she had prioritized sending her seventh-grade son Brian to a school where she knew he could thrive: Immaculate Conception in the South Bronx. “We transferred there,” she said, “and we are so happy with it.” But even with scholarship assistance, attending Catholic school meant juggling expenses. So she and Brian made do without internet access at home.

In March, all Partnership schools stepped up quickly to provide Chromebooks and other devices to families who needed them so our students could continue learning online during the pandemic. It was a community effort, and it positively impacted many families. When one school had extra devices, they shared them with a school whose families needed more of them. And parents helped out too, with a handful of moms and dads who work in IT making themselves available to troubleshoot for others who had challenges getting online. We firmly believe that our schools are more than just classrooms; they are communities, and the kind of mutual support around families’ needs provided this spring–everything from the COVID emergency relief fund to parents helping parents access Google Classroom–embodied that effort.

But for parents like Ms. Cruz, a piece of the remote learning puzzle remained problematic: internet access. Ms. Cruz had Brian use her phone as a hotspot until the data costs became prohibitive. Then she collaborated with a friend to get access, which proved unreliable. The supportive network of parents at ICS shared information about companies offering low-cost internet access for families who qualify; when Ms. Cruz called one of the offices to access the program, she got a recording saying that the office was closed due to the pandemic. Determined for Brian to be able to attend summer school online through ICS, she is cutting back on other essentials in order to pay for full-price internet access. The Partnership’s option of full-time remote learning this fall continues to be crucial for Brian–so internet at home will remain a must-have for the time being.

But not only is access expensive–$85 to $100 per month in most cases; throughout the South Bronx, it isn’t even high-speed broadband. Thus families who are paying regular prices for access can’t get the level of connectivity a family working and learning from home needs–a resource that Brian’s principal, Alex Benjamin, notes is something that “students in well-resourced neighborhoods are able to access daily.”

As Keith Kinch explains, “It’s an infrastructure issue. In low-income and working class communities, the internet service providers have not made the investments in fiber and other technologies needed to make broadband widely available.” Keith is the general manager at BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based tech start-up. He and his colleague, engineer Abhishek Dash, explain that companies make large investments in fiber infrastructure based on what they think they can recoup from the fees users pay. All of this leaves much of the South Bronx–including the families at Immaculate Conception like Ms. Cruz and Brian–with slow and spotty internet access similar to that found in many rural communities–certainly not the high-speed access one would expect from a major metropolitan area.

Partnership Schools continue to help families with one part of the online learning equation–and donors are helping us provide even more access to devices. But it takes resources beyond even our network to solve for WiFi access in families’ homes across the South Bronx.

Luckily, those resources now exist. And they are a heartening example of what it means to function as a community.

Immaculate Conception parish has long been part of South Bronx Churches, a network of faith communities that collaborate to enact solutions to empower and improve the lives of neighborhood residents. This summer, South Bronx Churches is coordinating partners like the New York City Housing Authority, Immaculate Conception school, and other entities both big and small to install large-scale Mesh networks in eighteen different housing developments in the South Bronx. As Michael Stanley of South Bronx Churches explains, mesh networks can function without the extensive wiring of other internet delivery systems–lowering their cost. And they provide WiFi fast enough for remote learning. So subscribers can log on “just like accessing WiFi in Starbucks.”

South Bronx Churches holds a community meeting at Immaculate Conception School.

Stanley’s organization has worked directly with ICS, using families’ addresses to help guide where the Mesh network is installed. And the work may expand to include families from St. Athanasius as well.

BlocPower is investing in these networks, along with two foundations–using the $1.8 million in capital raised so far to install “supernodes” on the tallest buildings in neighborhoods. Then buildings with a clear line of sight of the supernodes, usually within a mile, have antennas installed on their roofs and access points placed inside the buildings. Within weeks, if all goes well, families like Ms. Cruz and Brian will be able to access high-speed WiFi. Thanks to the grants, that access will be free initially. On an ongoing basis, Kinch estimates that access will cost between $5 and $50 per month per user. Kinch, himself a Catholic school graduate, appreciates how game-changing that low-cost access will be for students like ours.

Technicians survey a South Bronx rooftop in preparation for installing community-based WiFi equipment.

Both Stanley and Kinch are clear that maintaining and sustaining these low-cost internet networks can only succeed as community endeavor. Organizations like our schools must inform neighbors about the networks and facilitate access to them to prove that a market for sustaining them exists. And the networks’ long-term survival depends on their being owned by community organizations and maintained using tech expertise community members acquire. So BlocPower is clear on one front: they may have the know-how to get the network in place, but the project will only work with “great partners who will move the project forward, have deep roots in the community, and have a track record getting stuff done.”

Those partners include South Bronx Churches, and the Immaculate Conception parish and school. As ICS principal Alex Benjamin notes, “South Bronx Churches has been instrumental in identifying the needs of the community and mobilizing key stakeholders to affect change.” And as Stanley points out, his organization can only do that mobizing with the help of groups like Immaculate Conception. So for families like Ms. Cruz and Brian to get the internet access they need, a whole constellation of organizations has to rely on each other.

Immaculate Conception School articulates five root beliefs that animate the school community; We are made for each other is one of them. The community internet efforts that are underway right now on rooftops near the school demonstrate the power of living out that belief. Community collaboration is getting students the technology they need to learn remotely in the South Bronx. It can also beat back a virus so that fewer students need to.