One Size Fits None: Why Connecting California’s Least Connected Requires a Tailored Solution (Episode 110)

Date: 1 Oct 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, interviews Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael’s Director of Digital Services and Open Government, and Air Gallegos, Director of Education and Career for Canal Alliance. Rebecca and Air helped lead a local effort to build a Wi-Fi mesh network to connect residents in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, Calif.

Christopher, Air, and Rebecca discuss:

  • How the mobilization of local volunteers, combined with the efforts and expertise of the city and Canal Alliance, allowed them to quickly develop and implement a solution.
  • The impacts they’ve seen so far in the community.
  • The many issues they took into consideration as they planned the network, including power outages, digital literacy barriers, housing inequities, and language barriers, in order to ensure that it works for as many residents as possible both now and in the future.
  • What other communities can learn from San Rafael’s success.

Learn more about San Rafael and other communities working to connect residents to high quality Internet access on and ILSR’s Community Broadband Bits podcast.

“One of the things that’s been wonderful about this project is we’ve been living with deep inequities in the Canal for a very long time. And I think what’s interesting about COVID is they’re giving us an opportunity to build something new and build something different. It’s allowing a space for productivity and creativity to really happen, so that in some ways has been a really big blessing of everyone coming together… we live in a very crazy world and we have to be willing to try everything.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: For today’s episode, we have an interview with two women who are helping to lead a very cool project to connect a neighborhood in the Bay Area of California to internet access. But first I’m here with Christopher Mitchell, who’s the Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband initiative to give us a little context for their story. So, Chris, could you give us a very brief overview of the project?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I feel duty bound to actually start instead by commenting on the visualization I had in my head as you were reading the intro of ILSR being like a person throwing pottery and shaping their future, so I just wanted to… I wanted to give the listeners the visual.
Jess Del Fiacco: It’s not exactly what we’re going for there.
Christopher Mitchell: This WiFi Mesh Network is very interesting. It’s very inspiring. It’s a reminder of the fact that we should all take charge. We should take responsibility, take action and even if we’re not clear on how to do it, stepping up can really get other people excited about stepping up as well.
Jess Del Fiacco: They’re not going into people’s homes and giving them routers and running fiber, this is outside, right? On the street, although it reaches into apartment buildings, people’s individual homes, right? The WiFi?
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, for people who may live just off of the street, they may have a signal that’s strong enough to get into their homes. I think a lot of people will probably be using it outside. It’s easier to do that in California than Minnesota depending on the season. And the important part in my mind is that we have people who have gone from having suboptimal internet access, where they had to go to libraries or fast food and then we close those places down in many cases. And some of us reacted by saying, “Well, we should figure out something temporarily in the next, but really focus our time on the next 18 months,” because that’s the timeframe in which we could really make structural changes to fix this problem once and for all. And this is a stirring reminder that other people have to live and educate their children and do their jobs and figure out how to be safe in those 18 months. So, I really think that the work that they’re doing here is important and replicable.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, I was just like stunned by the amount of things that they took into the planning process for this and they accomplished it, or at least they started it in such a short amount of time. I mean, they were thinking about language barriers, housing issues, power outages there in California, wildfires, not only digital literacy, but literacy, literacy. So, can you just talk briefly about how their familiarity with their community, their ability to know where the needs are, and what the needs are helped make this happen so quickly?
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, one of the guest, Air, will make this point over and over again, in which she said she got to involve the community in these discussions to make sure that you’re really solving the problems that they have and I think she really nails that. One of my favorite parts of this interview is you’ll hear Rebecca say that her superpower is being naive, not appreciating how hard it will be to accomplish some of these things and I think that’s great. I think we need more of that. We need people to commit to things before they know how they’re going to necessarily answer it because there’s problems that if we just try to wait to do anything on until we know how to solve them, it’s going to take too long. And so, I think that Air and Rebecca here offer a really good pattern that we should see others do.
Christopher Mitchell: And there’s a point, I mean, I downplayed a little bit. They had a person who works for a major high-tech company who volunteered time to help get this network working and I think that really helped to drive it forward in this case, but I don’t think you need that in every area. And frankly, I think there’s more technical expertise in many areas than people realize. And so, I would also encourage people to pay attention to it when we talk about that, because they talk about how they think there’s more talent in a lot of communities than people realize and it’s just that people aren’t being asked to put their energies and talents forth in a way that would utilize them.
Jess Del Fiacco: And one last thing, it’s pretty small scale for a project. I mean, it’s focused right in one neighborhood. Could you talk about why this is more approachable? You know, then I think, what makes more sense? Expanding this project that’s already started or replicating it in other communities, because I feel like especially with internet access people will think, “Oh, we need a national network. We need big solutions to fix everything at once.” But what’s more approachable is these little solutions that happen all over the place, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think there’s this phrase that I’ve just recently learned about that others have known for a long time, “It’s one size fits none.” And so, what you’re saying I think is an appropriate question. There’s so many people that assume we need the federal government to come out and develop a plan and solve it. And I would just say that to the extent that we do need that, it should be a plan like electrification, in which the federal government made financing available for hundreds of local networks to be developed in the way they saw fit, where you have local folks actively involved, making sure it works in that sort of a thing.
Christopher Mitchell: And as I’m looking at our problems that we face here in St. Paul, Minnesota, where you and I live, I think a solution for all St. Paul would be great and it really would lead to more economic development, it would be good for education, it would be good for public safety. There’s all kinds of ways that we’ll be benefiting. But right now, what we need is a few neighborhoods that are very poorly connected to have some more free options, I think. And that’s just something people need to get on. And I’m hoping that in a few months, I won’t be looking and listening back on this and thinking, “Oh, yeah, I should have done something.” So, this has inspired me to try and take more action in our community and let’s hope that that goes somewhere, too.
Jess Del Fiacco: Okay with that, I think we can turn to the interview, unless there’s anything else you want to add before we go?
Christopher Mitchell: Nope, I’m excited to hear it again.
Christopher Mitchell: I’m excited to talk about this, a fast response that seems to really have a lot of community support to a problem. This is what we want to see. This is the kind of stuff we want to highlight, but I think it’s worth for people who have never heard San Rafael. What is San Rafael? Where is it? What’s the feeling of the community, its ambience, who lives there, that sort of a thing?
Air: San Rafael is located in Marin County in California, it’s in the Bay Area and in particular, the community that we’re working with is called the Canal. It’s a neighborhood that’s within San Rafael. So California, Marin County, San Rafael City and then the Canal neighborhood. And when we’re talking about the Canal, the reason it’s called the Canal is because it’s actually surrounded by a canal and actually two overlapping freeways. It’s a very, actually small area, a couple of square miles by a couple of square miles. And the canal is kind of split between like pretty much in half between residential and like industrial space that provides much of the economic functionality of all of San Rafael.
Air: And so when we’re talking about this community, and the reason it’s important to say all those things is Marin County itself is actually one of the wealthiest counties in all of California and the canal itself actually provides housing for the majority of low income residents in the Marin County. There’s a huge disparity rate, which is sort of what prompted this project that we’ve been working on. Marin County has the highest disparity rate and education in California.
Air: And so, when I think about the canal, it’s a really, really beautiful place. There are many immigrants that live within the canal. A lot of times there’s crowded housing, but the people that live there are absolutely resilient. They’re an asset to our community. They’re really, really hard working. And during these COVID times, the Canal has really been the backbone of all of our essential workers that help provide for Marin County.
Christopher Mitchell: And Air, I’m hoping you can also just tell us a little bit about the Canal Alliance. What sort of stuff do you do?
Air: Yeah, absolutely. So, Canal Alliance is a nonprofit that’s been in the community for 30 years and we work to end the cycle of poverty for immigrants. So, the canal has a huge immigrant population. It’s actually almost doubled in the last decade. And so, we mainly work with the Latinx community and but we work to help out and eliminate poverty through a variety of things. We have an Immigration Legal Services Department, a Social Services Department, an Education Department, a Workforce Department. And so, we really are a central place for everyone to be able to gather and to be able to advocate and develop policy around community needs for immigrants within our community.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, Rebecca, if I understand correctly, you didn’t know Air perhaps a year ago? It seems like this is something you’ve met in dealing with this challenge. So, can you just walk us back to what you would put at the beginning of this story behind the Wireless Project that we’re going to be talking about?
Rebecca: Sure. And I would actually start that prior to the pandemic, there were definitely conversations happening between different groups around the need for increasing internet access, especially in the Canal neighborhood. So, there were these early conversations happening, but I don’t think there was a really clear roadmap yet that was really pulling together the sectors around, I think, there was like a shared goal, but not a shared way to get there. And so, when the shelter and home order though went into place, and schools moved online, it really like kicked us into gear. I think, even though we had started having the conversations, we didn’t have a plan in place by any means.
Rebecca: But there were some, I think there was like the forming of kind of the cross-sector collaboration, that really jelled in this project. So early in the pandemic, I connected with the school district pretty early on as well as a community member that I knew had some experience with digital divide initiatives who was actually working on a master’s degree at UC Berkeley and lived in San Rafael. And I reached out to him really quickly and he like in 24 hours put together like a menu of options with some rough feasibility assessments of what we could start doing.
Rebecca: And the schools and I, we really just started, like it was like, “Okay, let’s try everything.” It was like “throw the spaghetti at the wall” strategy. And so. we started buying up hotspots. They were very quickly going on to backorder, I think and so, we’d find out if we could buy hotspots and we just like, make a big order. We also started to do promotion of things like a lot of the companies were opening up their hotspots and we wanted to promote the low-cost home internet options. And also working with families to kind of streamline that process as well, because we were hearing early on that there was some barriers to families getting signed up, so we worked with them.
Rebecca: One thing that was challenging to some of these programs were they were all kind of like opt in programs, and those innately have barriers with them. And so, in addition to things like backlogs and shipping delays, so there was still just a lot of gaps that existed. And then another community member reached out to me and suggested building a mesh WiFi network. I had never done that before. But he said he had some experience with that and could draw up some conceptual designs just as a volunteer, that his company was actually paying him to volunteer in his own community during COVID and that he could give up to 10 days of a time, which I think has turned into a lot more than that [crosstalk 00:12:43].
Rebecca: But we also did some asset mapping. I got my data analyst on the project and we started to do some asset mapping of the community and put together an initial design concept. And then I reached out to the county and I mean, it just really snowballed from there because I don’t even feel like I finished my sentence before the county just was completely on board, which was huge for us, because we really didn’t have any funds identified at all.
Rebecca: And so then, we connected with Canal Alliance and really quickly, we had a great team of people between government, schools, nonprofit, and what I think was amazing is community volunteers. And so, we really had this great team of people. And that as I look back as to where we were then and where we are now and I think the reason we’ve come so far is because we just had this like amazing great group of people that came together aligned around this project.
Christopher Mitchell: Air, do you want to add anything on to that? I’m curious.
Air: Just my memory of it is getting a call from Rebecca and her pitching me this idea of putting boosters on buildings and things on streetlights, and me being like, “This is really crazy. Maybe it could work.” And her being like, “Do you guys have any buildings?” And one of the things at Canal Alliance, we actually have low-income housing, so we actually do have buildings that are in the canal. We’re like, “You could put them on our buildings.” And just this really, I think what I would say is the digital divide for us, for Canal Alliance, we’ve been fighting this for decades. This isn’t a new thing for us.
Air: For a lot of our families, that isolation that happens when you don’t have access to information and knowledge has been happening for a really long time and COVID just exasperated it and honestly, it’s made it a much larger community issue, even outside of the Canal, because what we’re seeing with COVID is how interconnected everyone is. And if you don’t have access to go online to make a doctor’s appointment, to help your kids get into school, to know where testing is and then you’re an essential worker that’s going into to work at Target or wherever it is that you work, and you’re coming in interaction with the rest of the community, we’re actually all way more interlinked than we think. And I think that that’s part of what’s really driven this project forward is that we need to understand that we’re only as strong as the weakest person in our community. And so, I think that that has really helped promote this project.
Christopher Mitchell: The things that you just described I feel like are relevant for any community in terms of those challenges, but I feel like you actually even have more challenges because most communities, at least here in Minnesota and most of the country, don’t have to worry about PG&E deciding to shut off our electricity for days at a time. And one of the things that really struck me was how this was an issue before COVID, where people would, the wealthier folks in the county could leave and go to a place that had electricity, but you had a real challenge for getting information to people with no electricity. And I think it’s just worth revisiting that for a second.
Air: We had a PST event even prior to COVID where that really did happen and Canal Alliance, we have people putting messages up, like handwritten, getting out on the street, and you add COVID on another layer of that where you can’t actually put boots on the ground in the same way of it being safe. And so, I think that that’s exactly spot on like how do we continue to get knowledge out during these times, so that we can help one another.
Rebecca: Last October, we had an event that I think you’re referencing to PG&E proactively shut off power more than Marin County, but Marin County went particularly dark. We were probably one of the… I think we had some of the most power shut off in the North Bay and it was pretty eerie and it was for days on end. And one of the other significant things that happened in Marin County is we had more cell towers go down in our county than anywhere else. It was something like 67% of our cell towers went down. So, very quickly, we lost our ability to communicate with constituents. And so, one of our deepest fears was, “Okay, we’re dealing with this crisis, what happens when another crisis happens, and we can’t get the word out about it.”
Rebecca: And so yeah, during that time, we were actually, we were creating, almost every day, we would create like an emergency update and we would go out to community centers and other areas and tape these up on the walls of buildings. It was pretty frustrating to try to get critical information out during this time. And so, we are now in a time of it’s we have a new thing called rolling blackouts, so these are a little different from the proactive power shutdowns. These are having to do with kind of the heatwaves rather than worried about fire danger. So, we’re getting a lot of experience with emergencies these days.
Rebecca: And so, one of the things that we’ve been talking about with the network that we’re setting up in the Canal neighborhood is which of our assets are potentially going to be powered by generators during this time. And so, we’re putting some root access points on things like pump stations and community centers that we will be able to power during these shutdowns. And so, while we may not be able to keep the entire network up during a power outage, we think we can create and message which areas of the network will stay up. So, you might not be able to get it right on your block, but you might be able to get it if you go near to the pump station or near to the community center.
Christopher Mitchell: That’s the kind of information that the community will be able to share amongst themselves. Yeah. “Ask Tommy, he always knows where the internet works.” And one other question I just I had about that, Air, when you were talking about, “We’ll just throw them on the side of buildings.” I feel like a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I have a drill, I could do that.” But you need to put electricity there and that’s more tricky and I’m just curious how you dealt with those sorts of things.
Air: We put most of our equipment on streetlights. That’s where most of the wireless access points are, so early on, we worked out an agreement to install these on the streetlights and then we have the root access points that are going in some of the buildings. And so, those are the buildings that are owned by Canal Land, so we’re working with them on that installation. And then we’re working with the power and everything on the pump station, so we’ve kind of mapped that out but yeah, definitely the power. Early on when we totally didn’t know what we were doing, we were like “Let’s put them on,” and it was probably me, like “Let’s put them on bus shelters.”
Christopher Mitchell: Moving trees.
Air: But yeah, we quickly learned what we were doing and there were people far more technical than I was on the team ready to correct my ideas, but yeah. So, we’ve worked it out. We’re using a lot of street lights, but even with that, it gets complicated. Some of the street poles are owned by the city, some aren’t, so it’s been a puzzle, to say the least. We’ve also had some line of sight issues that we’ve had to resolve, so had to get out there and do a little tree trimming and a lot of site visits. You’re looking at Google Maps and you think something can work and then you get out there and you’re like, “Nope.”
Christopher Mitchell: In the end did a lot of the money come from the county then to be able to do this work?
Air: So, the county has made a significant contribution and then a County Supervisor, Dennis Rodoni, was just incredible at fundraising, so he reached out to a lot of other philanthropic arms to get some big checks and so, we’re incredibly grateful for the funds that have come in. The Marin Community Foundation donated a sizable amount and then mark Pincus donated another big check as well as some other smaller checks that have come in. So, the county I would say just knocked it out of the park in terms of contributing themselves and then bringing in the donors.
Christopher Mitchell: As we’re talking about how you have sprung into action with this, for me, it’s a sign of how many of the people that that I’m looking to about this, who are saying “This is a problem we need to do with it.” And even my own reaction, in some ways is it’s like, “All right. Well, let’s figure out how to deal with this over the next 18 months. Let’s think about some manageable chunk of time.” And in the meantime, I guess people are just screwed, right? But like you guys have really taken action and I’m curious. I mean, it sounds to me and in thinking about your story, it’s really appreciated, it’s important that we actually treat this with urgency and a lot of people aren’t treating it with urgency in other jurisdictions.
Air: Speaking for myself, I think one of my superpowers is naïveté and it gets me really far, because I actually didn’t know what it was going to take to make this happen. And so like that not knowing just kind of pushed us into gear and just everyone was so positive, and had this kind of new attitude and that’s why I think the team that kind of spontaneously in a way or almost by happenstance, we all came together, we just all worked so well together. And with this can-do attitude, there was no one in the group that was like, “Well, that’s not going to work because of X.”
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Air: Everyone just jelled in terms of like, “Let’s make this happen as fast as possible,” and like, “If anything pops up in our way, let’s steamroll it.”
Christopher Mitchell: Let’s take a break. And cut back to Jess.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. Stories like this one from San Rafael are what we’re trying to bring to you through this podcast and if you appreciate them, if you find them inspiring, we hope you’ll take a minute to go to our website and make a donation to help us keep going.
Christopher Mitchell: Perhaps even 90 seconds.
Jess Del Fiacco: It’s very easy. It’s not even going to take you 90 seconds. I think we’ve just updated our donation page to keep it all smooth.
Christopher Mitchell: Fine Jess. You’re just faster than I am and that’s okay.
Jess Del Fiacco: But your support really does make this podcast possible and it supports the research and resources that we do through all of our initiatives. So, help us tell stories like this, help us support returning power to local communities, go to ilsr/donate.
Jess Del Fiacco: And now let’s get back to Chris’s conversation with Rebecca and Air.
Christopher Mitchell: Air, I’m curious also, I mean, how do you feel about that? The urgency and do you see in other areas that people aren’t getting this, so they’re just sort of waiting on it?
Air: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a combination of both. One of the things that’s been wonderful about this project is we’ve been living with deep inequities in the Canal for a very long time. And I think what’s interesting about COVID is they’re giving us an opportunity to build something new and build something different. It’s allowing a space for productivity and creativity to really happen, so that in some ways has been a really big blessing of everyone coming together and like no idea is crazy at this point. Like, we live in a very crazy world and we have to be willing to try everything.
Air: And I remember, even when we really started jumping on this, we hired some of our youth as promotoras to be able to go out into the community and see what the community need was and really assess what that digital divide looked like on the grounds. And those youth looked at me and said, they’re like, “Air, is this really going to happen? Can we do this?” And so, I think part of that too, is like how do we you look at new fresh ideas, how do we see our youth as being just as wise as our elders, right? All of these different things and that’s kind of what has been able to drive forward this project. But I do think that of course, there are still people that are going to be left behind.
Air: This is a step towards the right direction, right? This is the first step that we’re really taking and making it happen pretty quickly, but this is not completely resolving the digital divide and I think that’s really important to make clear. We still have tons and tons of people who don’t have access even after the mesh network goes up, because of those deep inequities that have existed. Crowded housing not being able to ask your landlord to change your internet access provider, living in old cinderblock buildings that WiFi doesn’t actually come through.
Air: There’s a lot of holes and gaps that we’re still seeing on the ground and so this is a really great, great first step, and we have to continue to take action and continue to move forward, because I really think at this point in time, especially during a pandemic, information is now an essential utility. It’s like having water and food and it’s human rights, and so if we don’t continue to move forward in this way, we’re really doing harm to our entire community, not just the people that we might consider to be lower income, et cetera. It really does harm, everybody that lives around us. And so, yes, this is a step in the right direction and we’re looking forward to continuing the process.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that’s really important to note and similarly, we’ve been talking about the network without really defining how it works. And so, Rebecca, let me just turn to you and ask, “Is this a network that is aimed at trying to get people connected inside their homes, is it mostly out in the open, is it a mixture? What do you think about in terms of the goal of the network technologically?
Rebecca: So, the first phase is really an outdoor WiFi network, but the apartments that are street facing are going to have pretty good access, so there’s a number of homes that will have access to the network. But again, we’re using streetlights, we have a couple of buildings that are involved in this first phase, we see a natural second phase as one that engages with some of the property owners. Air just mentioned, some of the buildings are kind of the cinderblock, they have these kind of interior courtyards, which means that there are a lot of more interior apartments that are not going to have access to the network at all.
Rebecca: And so, the second phase that we want to quickly move into is working closely with those property owners or those property managers and seeing how far we can extend that network into those courtyards to reach those other apartment buildings. This is a WiFi network, it does not replace, good solid-wired internet connections and homes. That’s also the next work, speaking to Air’s point like, “This is just the beginning.” And we really want to work towards those. I see both of those efforts being really key, even if we were to reach the goal of getting every apartment connected to wired internet in that neighborhood, I still think this WiFi network adds a lot of value. If you think about your cell phone bill and the cost of data.
Rebecca: If you are walking outside and you’re able to tap into a free WiFi network and not your data plan, you’re going to have a much lower cellphone bill, so I see these two things as being both really important goals, but the network that we are doing right now, again, it was the thing that we thought we could do the fastest. And so yeah, it’s predominantly an outdoor WiFi network that we’re hoping can extend as far into these apartment buildings as we can get them.
Air: To the point you made before, Rebecca, like during a power outage, which we’ve had quite a lot, the wired internet at home, although that’s the best and having everyone have digital broadband would actually solve the digital divide. In an emergency of a power outage, those things are also going to go out, so I think this is really thinking about like how do we have a multilayer, multi-tiered approach, so that we can make sure that we’re building sustainability for the future and not just the issues that we’ve been having in the past.
Rebecca: Right. And to that point, one of the things that we’ve done with the landing page that when people log into the network and the first website they land on, we’ve curated that with critical emergency information. So, we’re using that and that’s going to be our mechanism for getting critical information out during a disaster. As soon as people log in, they’re going to see the most critical information. So, right now you land on there and it tells you where you can get a free COVID test and critical health information right now. As soon as we’re going to need this in a power outage, it’s going to have different information, so we’re going to use that landing page as a communication vehicle.
Christopher Mitchell: Are you also surveying people? I think I saw something along those lines to get a sense of how people are using it?
Air: we have definitely been surveying people, we actually started this entire project because really wanted to be able to understand community need by doing surveys, we knew that there was a digital divide. But part of the problem is, is when people have tried to measure the digital divide before, we’re using digital technology to measure the digital divide, right? So, we’re sending surveys out over email or a variety of different tools. And one of the things in particular in the Canal is a lot of people who are immigrants don’t have access to have their voice be heard.
Air: So, what we did is we hired promotoras to be able to be on the ground to go different places that we could make sure that language wasn’t a barrier, that literacy wasn’t a barrier for people, and that having internet access wasn’t a barrier. So, a lot of people that live in the Canal, many of them speak Spanish, but sometimes Spanish is their second or third language. They might speak an indigenous Central American language, et cetera and so we had that, a lot of them, a lot of people that we work with in our education department are considered sliced students, which means they have limited or formal education, so they might have only gone to school to like second grade or third grade, so literacy is also an issue.
Air: And then also you can’t use the tool that you’re trying to measure to be able to send it out, so we did a lot of research in the area and we just found that the disparity was huge and Canal residents, only about 43% of them owned a computer at home compared to 90% of people living outside of the Canal. That’s a huge difference that talks about digital inequities. And so, once we were able to kind of measure all of this and see where we are, I think our goal is to continue to measure through the landing page, what people’s experiences are of the mesh network, and then to continue on throughout the year getting back out and on the ground to see sort of if we’ve made a difference in any of this data, like can we ask the same questions and see that more people are connected.
Air: One of the other huge questions we asked is whether or not your internet is fast enough to load a website in 10 seconds? A variety of other questions, and most people said, “No.” So, when you think about this, we really started I think, Rebecca, correct me if I’m wrong, but we had really started with an envisionment of just K through 12 Education and the fact that we had tons of students that weren’t able to get to school and do the online learning. And then we really realized “No, this is bigger.” This is like a community project where all information now during COVID is moving into an online platform, so we need to have a broader and wider reach. But that’s sort of where, all of this information really drove through, like drove for the passion of this team to make a difference because we have tons of people that are living in the Canal that need better access.
Rebecca: This project really did kind of get spearheaded by the schools in some ways. I mean, there was that initial like, “Oh, my God, the kids.” And then, but then we did. We quickly realized we want to make sure that we are definitely solving for this online school, so we can try to prevent that equity, the educational equity gap, that is immense right now, but then we certainly identified this need for just general community information access to all of this great information that is out there and that a lot of people have access to and then there’s a lot of people that are left behind.
Christopher Mitchell: That I think brings up a point that the additional challenge can be digital literacy. Are you able to, in the midst of all this work, also offer some kinds of training or point them in the right direction for families that need that sort of a thing?
Air: Yeah. We made that definitely a part of our project, so we actually have launched a second donation fundraising campaign to be able to hopefully not only fill some of these gaps with hardware, right? So, we’re seeing that only 40% of people own their own computer, right? So, we want to be able to gift computers to the community so people can get connected, but then we also need to teach them how to utilize those computers. We have tons of parents, who haven’t had that connectivity that might have received a school Chromebook, but aren’t sure how to power it on or how to login or how to get on to Google Classroom or don’t have an email address.
Air: And so there’s a lot of layers of digital literacy that we still need to implement and which we’ve seen become a huge barrier. So, we have a lot of community partners now that are actually working with the school district to be able to see how can we do two forms of digital literacy? How can we do an on the ground support for people who really need support in terms of figuring out how to plug it in, how to turn it on, people who’ve never used a mouse before or a keypad before? And then how can we also filter other people who need more long-term digital literacy around like Google Classroom or Zoom, but can click on a link and join? And then how can we do that from a distance and be able to support.
Air: So, we’re still working on setting up all those things at the same time that we’re launching the mesh network, but the need is really huge and from Canal Alliance’s perspective, we have families that come to us every single day, moms in tears because they can’t get their kids online and all they want is what any parent wants, right? Which is to be able to help their children learn and to be able to help their children succeed. And so, that’s something I think that we’re also committed to. It’s not enough to just put up a network and give somebody a Chromebook. We have to do a lot deeper knowledge and a lot more restorative practices around the device that we’ve created and harbored over the last decades.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I just, I want to really emphasize that because what you just said I think should be emotionally powerful, it should be emotionally jarring for people that have been able to transition to working at home and feeling like the pandemic is mostly a problem for other people in terms of it is an inconvenience for my family, but for other people it can be really devastating. And so, I just want to again highlight how important it is that you all acted quickly. Now, Rebecca, I think you wanted to jump in.
Rebecca: One of the early questions we were wrestling with was tech support. We’re setting up this network, what happens-
Christopher Mitchell: That’s the biggest cost. Yeah.
Rebecca: So, what happens when people have trouble with it? And so, one of our early ideas and this is also kind of bridging into the digital literacy is that we’ve got a small library branch in the neighborhood and they’re doing curbside pickup right now. And so, one of our early ideas is they are going to become also tech support that you can walk up and talk to about kind of troubleshooting with the network or how do I get on or how do I do this and they’re all bilingual there.
Rebecca: And so, that’s one of our early ideas of how to solve some of the tech support challenges that might occur when people are trying to log into the network and not able to. Again, it’s a small walkable neighborhood and so, we want to advertise just walk down between these hours, you can walk down to the library, and you can talk to a person who can help you connect to the network.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Rebecca, I want to come back to something that I wanted to ask you about, which is I’d seen in some of the coverage, including my own from Ry on our team, that there were some holes in the Comcast Internet Essentials coverage and I’ve tried to give them praise where they’re due. That program has brought millions of people online and they deserve credit for that. They’ve done more than any other national company in this direction, but I’m curious about what holds you observed in terms of things that you had to address that you felt that wouldn’t be addressed through that program?
Rebecca: Big picture, I think there’s always innate challenges to any opt-in program. Any type of program where somebody has to sign up for something where somebody has to give personal information to something to any kind of company. There can be fear. There can be literacy challenges. There can be eligibility challenges and some are real and some are perceived, and the perceived ones can be just as bad as the real ones, because they stop people from even trying.
Rebecca: And so, I think it’s important to explore things that are really reducing the barriers as much as possible and not creating signup processes for things. And so, one of the early wins and actually, Comcast was great to work with was the schools came to Comcast and they said, “Look, every student here is on reduced lunch. Can we streamline the process, so that families that go to our school don’t have to prove they’re eligible? Can they just if they say there’s families from this elementary school, can they just or the school district, can that eligibility be streamlined?” And Comcast worked with them on that and that was I think a really great win to kind of streamline those eligibility issues.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that we don’t have a lot of data on, but I’m still exploring and need to do more research on is whether Comcast Internet Essentials is even available in every apartment building. There are some apartments, there’s a lot of dishes in the neighborhood which leads me to believe that Comcast may not even be able to get into some of these apartment buildings. So, that’s something I want to research a little bit further. So, I think and then, I think there’s just the again, I kind of alluded to earlier, but for some immigrant families putting their name and address on any sort of form, there’s some fear associated with that. And so we have there’s barriers in a lot of ways to this.
Rebecca: I think, also in thinking about, what are our real end goals if you can… there never should be an end. But what are our bigger goals around this, and in my opinion, it’s really ensuring that every household there has access to affordable and really high quality internet. It’s not enough to me to give people internet. It should be good and usable. And I think that we should be striving for things that are even better than the Internet Essentials, in terms of bandwidth and quality. So I think that it is a really great start and it is a really great program and it’s connecting a lot of families. But I think inevitably, there are gaps that need to be addressed.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. And Air, I’m curious what you can tell us about what we know in terms of how many people are using the network at this point and things like that?
Air: I mean, we’re still in the early stages of it, so I don’t know that we necessarily have that data yet. We still haven’t gotten all of the stages up, but so I’m not sure that we can answer that, but what I do love about what Rebecca just said is I think this project and what really drove it forward is this real idea, which was I was happy in all of our partnerships with which we kept expressing and I think everyone really heard like you have to meet communities where they’re at and a lot of times, I think we don’t ask people where they’re at or what’s going on, or taking time to slow down to be able to understand that. And I think that this group really did do that.
Air: You have things like public charge, and tons of other things that people really are living in fear, especially during a time that’s so uncertain and things are changing all of the time. And to be scared of being deported, or choosing between putting food on the table and getting your kids to school like that is not an okay choice for a parent to have to make. And so, I just really want to like refocus on that of you have to be able to meet the community where they are and be willing to come up with things that are innovative and asking for people’s names and addresses. And all of these other things produce a lot of barriers for people that live in our community.
Air: And so I think, this is a great first step to actually seeing what the community need is and then I also just wanted to mention that it’s just been great partnership, too like we don’t have full numbers on how many people are connected yet, because the whole network is not up, but we’ve been doing wonderful and innovative things and also meet in a community where they are like we’re creating a tutorial video, in both graded English and graded Spanish that has pictures, that shows people, it has subtitles for accessibility, and we’re going to be texting it to everybody that lives in the zip code that the Canal is located within, both from Canal Alliance and from the school districts, so that there’s not an accessibility issue and that people can actually learn how to connect their cell phone, how to connect their students, Chromebook, et cetera in a really simplified way.
Air: And I think that’s another great example where we’ve really tried to think at every single different angle, like how can we put the community in the center and really understand what that community need is. And I think that’s what’s made a difference in the partnership. It’s not just relying on an outside network, right? Whether it’s Comcast or AT&T or whatever those things are, it’s really reversing the role and saying what does our community actually need versus what is being offered? If that makes sense.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes.
Rebecca: I don’t have numbers as of today, but I know that last week, last week is…
Air: Brand new.
Rebecca: … pretty new and actually we haven’t done super heavy promotion. We really just did promotion, like heaviest promotion, and like the small area where the network is first available, we’re really talking about a couple of blocks and in the first couple of days, we just put out like signs on the blocks that said in English and Spanish “Free WiFi is available on this block.” And we put those out on the streets, on the sidewalks and within the first couple of days we had several hundred unique visitors which surprised us when we’re just talking about a couple of blocks worth of a neighborhood. And so, we were pretty impressed by those numbers. I don’t have the numbers from this week, but that was within the first couple of days. It was pretty exciting to see more people logging on and checking it out than we expected.
Christopher Mitchell: And Rebecca, I have one final question which it wasn’t mine, someone else had come up to it and that’s the question of what if you, at this point now that you’re an IT expert and network design wizard, if you had to go back in time and you didn’t have a person with that technical expertise able to volunteer their time, do you have a sense of how another community might be able to move forward if they don’t have that fortunate situation?
Rebecca: We had so many volunteers that sprang up from this.
Christopher Mitchell: Someone would have had that expertise.
Rebecca: They’re really, they’re everywhere, look for them.
Christopher Mitchell: In Marin County.
Rebecca: No, but I mean, I really do think like and reach, I mean, I don’t know. I guess, reach out to communities that have done it. I mean, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to open source our model. Talk to others about how we made this happen. You’re right. We were lucky that we had some pretty stellar community volunteers. One of the volunteers that came on board to donate, I don’t even know how many at this point hours of his time, is somebody who has expertise building mesh networks on private islands. So you’re right, that is a Marin County specialty.
Christopher Mitchell: But I think your point is correct, is that it’s a barn raising. And I think there’s a lot more willingness in our communities to step forward and figure this out than people might assume.
Rebecca: Yeah, I do. I’ve been really, like seeing the volunteers that come from the community and come from local businesses to just say, “We’ll absolutely do this for free.” I mean, we had a local electric company offered to do all the installation on the streetlights for free.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow.
Rebecca: It’s been incredible to see everyone come in with the real dollars in hand and then also the pro bono services in hand that’s really made this happen. But I do think there’s… one of the things I love about working in public service is the way that we can scale good ideas across the world is so inspiring. I love that about public service. We’re not in competition with any other community out there, so the more we can open source what we’ve done and create these playbooks for other communities to learn, the better. And that’s I think why most people are doing this kind of work.
Christopher Mitchell: Any closing comments, Air?
Air: Yeah. I think just to add on to Rebecca, what Rebecca said, it’s we have other areas in Marin that are just as in need as the Canal and we’ve already been in conversations around like, “What would that look like to be able to put it into more places?” And I think there’s a fine balance between sharing all of that information and still doing what I talked about in terms of like really centering the community and the community needs, because what works in the Canal might not work in another neighborhood, right? There’s just going to be different issues and different things that come up.
Air: So, I think, exactly what Rebecca said, what’s great is there’s so many people that are willing to share their knowledge and also we need to make sure that we’re really centering the people from whom we say that we’re serving or we’re trying to make a difference for. It’s really their opinion and their life that is being lived that matters. So, I think it’s kind of a combination of those two things. And so, I think working on Canal Alliance’s perspective, we have felt very blessed to be a community member that’s been involved in the conversation that’s been able to really lead change in the community.
Rebecca: Yeah, I absolutely agree that honoring the local expertise, like that boots on the ground and elevating that is so critical to success. And I think that the power of this project is the people that have made it happen and that we’ve really had such diversity on the team from technical expertise to community expertise to fundraising expertise, there’s just been all the right people at the table, all with a can-do positive attitude, all with bigger dreams than might be possible, but it’s always good to reach higher because if you try to reach too low, then nothing good ever happens.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you might accidentally succeed. I’ve studied hundreds of different community approaches, this one is one of the most inspirational, particularly for this time and so, I just really want to thank you. I want to thank everyone involved with it and I hope that this inspires lots of other people to build on it. Thank you very much for your time today.
Air: Thanks.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website.
Jess Del Fiacco: Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is by Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: iStock/benedek

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