“We were able to provide internet service in the areas most in need,” says Milwaukee CIO David Henke.

Sep 24 2021

Wi-Fi Expansion by City and State Governments Boosts Citizen Access to the Internet

Local and state governments installed free wireless hotspots during the pandemic.

Milwaukee residents with broadband can bank and shop online, post on social media, and work and learn remotely without a second thought. But for many low-income residents, high-speed internet is a necessity they can’t afford — and when COVID-19 hit, their needs for fast, reliable access became even greater.

City leaders wanted to assist. Milwaukee’s school district and ­public libraries equipped students and residents with some mobile hotspots, but it wasn’t enough. 

When pandemic relief funds became available, Milwaukee’s Information and Technology Management Division targeted 10 city parks in underserved neighborhoods — where up to 25 percent of households don’t have internet access at home — for wireless access points, with the assistance of CDW•G. 

“We were able to provide internet service in the areas most in need,” says Milwaukee CIO David Henke. 

Free community Wi-Fi is nothing new. Over the past two decades, local governments have increased the availability of free wireless internet at city facilities, such as public libraries and convention centers, airports, downtown areas, parks and other public spaces. 

Some invest in the wireless ­infrastructure; others partner with ­companies and nonprofits. Their goal is to provide residents and visitors a public service, but free outdoor Wi-Fi ­downtown also boosts economic development. 

The need for free broadband access became more acute during the ­pandemic. Many local governments used Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to build free, public Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure their residents had access to ­education, work, healthcare ­and­ government services online. 

“This is a great way to democratize this technology,” says IDC Analyst Brandon Butler. “It’s extremely important for folks, particularly those who do not have cellular connectivity.” 

Milwaukee Expands Free Outdoor Wi-Fi Access

The city of Milwaukee was among the first U.S. cities to offer free wireless internet in 2003 when it installed Wi-Fi at city libraries and two downtown parks, Henke says. Since then, city leaders have wanted to expand wireless coverage to more parks, but they couldn’t secure funding until the city received CARES Act funds in 2020.

For the project, the city spent $100,000 on Cisco Aironet 1560 Series access points and two Cisco Catalyst 9800 Series wireless controllers to manage the APs, and another $100,000 for installation. The IT department had previously s­tandardized on Cisco wireless gear in city offices, so it made sense to continue with Cisco to simplify installation and management, Henke says.

Henke ordered the 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless equipment last October and wanted to install the APs in fall 2020. But the gear did not arrive until late January 2021 because of COVID-related manufacturing shortages that have affected the tech sector. 

Installation took about a month. The city deployed one AP per park and launched the Wi-Fi hotspots in eight parks in late February, in time for ­students to take advantage of them for the spring semester, Henke says. 

To speed implementation, the city of Milwaukee strategically chose parks with city facilities nearby or across the street, allowing it to leverage existing network infrastructure and internet connections, he says. 

For example, the APs were mounted on the side of buildings, such as fire and police stations, public works garages and, in some cases, on police radio towers. 

“It helped us keep the costs ­reasonable,” he says. 

The city will add wireless access to two additional parks later this year. In the meantime, the new hotspots are ­getting plenty of use, Henke says. 

“We’ve had great summer weather. The parks are in use. COVID infections have gone down enough that people are going out again. It feels great to see the utilization,” he says. 

RELATED: Follow these tips when building public Wi-Fi networks.

Pulaski, Va., Aims to Boost Wi-Fi Downtown 

The rural town of Pulaski, Va., also used CARES Act funds to install free Wi-Fi in its historic downtown in an effort to drive more customers to the small businesses located there. 

It’s part of Pulaski’s downtown revitalization effort. Over the past five years, the town has ­renovated storefronts to attract new businesses. The effort has brought new life to the district, including a cafe, a virtual reality gaming lounge and, recently, a new art studio that hosts painting parties.

With businesses hit hard by COVID-19, Town Manager Darlene Burcham led the Wi-Fi effort to lure residents and tourists to downtown. “Our intent is to get people to come downtown and entice them with free Wi-Fi,” she says. 

Milwaukee CIO David Henke
We were able to provide internet service in the areas most in need.”

David Henke Milwaukee CIO

Pulaski County’s IT department, which manages IT for the town, was too busy to implement the project, so the town paid $50,000 for a third-party wireless company to install and manage five Cambium Networks APs for the next two years. 

It took about a month to install the APs. The service provider tapped into the county’s fiber network, but the Wi-Fi traffic is segmented and doesn’t touch the county’s internal network, says Clayton Howlett, the county’s ­technology director.

The town launched the free Wi-Fi in late December 2020, and today about 300 people log in to use the service every week, Burcham says. The downtown Wi-Fi augments free wireless access that the county offers in two parks and the community center. 

“As a community service, it’s good for downtown,” Howlett says. “A lot of people think we just take their tax money, and they don’t see what we do with it. It’s showing your tax money at work.” 

MORE FROM STATETECH: How governments and schools are partnering on closing the digital divide.

Washington State Deploys Drive-In Wi-Fi Hotspots

Two months into the pandemic, Washington State’s Department of Commerce launched a public-private initiative that now provides more than 600 free Wi-Fi “drive-in” hotspots to residents without broadband in their home.

The state targeted rural areas with little or no broadband access, but also underserved and economically ­disadvantaged urban and suburban communities.

“When the state went into shutdown mode, I went into ‘oh my gosh, we have to act’ mode. I knew we would have serious demand,” recalls Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office.

The state didn’t have funds to pay for wireless equipment, but Elliott got the program running through private ­donations and government entities that came forward to help, including libraries, school districts and the Washington State University system. 

Donations of $50,000 each from Microsoft and the Avista Foundation jump-started the effort and allowed the state to purchase Cisco Meraki APs and immediately launch 100 drive-in hotspots in the parking lots of WSU extension offices, libraries and K–12 school campuses across the state. 

43%

The percentage of low-income U.S. adults who do not have home broadband service

Source: Pewresearch.org, “Digital Divide Persists Even as Americans with Lower Incomes Make Gains in Tech Adoption,” June 22, 2021

Then the state’s Emergency Management Division put Elliott in touch with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, a national nonprofit that provides technical resources to communities after disasters.

Three ITDRC tech teams installed another 150 Wi-Fi hotspots using donated APs at schools, health clinics and libraries in communities that needed internet connectivity the most. As word of the effort got out, more libraries, schools, businesses and churches made wireless APs available. 

“We had a lot of local places that volunteered to put up an AP in a ­community of need,” he says.

The hotspots have been widely used. This winter, when the weather gets cold, the state will look to move some hotspots to indoor areas, such as ­community centers. The state recently budgeted $500,000 to increase the ­number of Wi-Fi hotspots over the next two years. 

“We think this is a helpful resource for residents, so we will maintain the integrity of these hotspots and look to build robust access indoors,” Elliott says.

Photography By Darren Hauck