San Francisco’s latest project to help close the much-discussed digital divide is the expected launch of free wireless internet service for residents at the Sunnydale and Potrero public housing sites.
The City in 2018 halted plans for an ambitious project to provide fiber-based broadband service to all residents and businesses that would have cost more than $1 billion. Instead it has prioritized bringing free access to select affordable housing sites.
The Sunnydale and Potrero public housing sites are now slated to be equipped with wireless access by the Department of Technology.
The San Francisco Housing Authority Commission on Thursday unanimously approved the $1.2 million project, which it will pay for with its capital funds. It covers the department’s installation of the network and maintenance until June 30, 2023. The project needs final approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The wireless access will take six to eight months to install, with work beginning first at Sunnydale, where there are 563 occupied units, followed by Potrero Terrace, where there are 301 occupied units. Living in the units are 609 youth in grades 3 to 12.
Both sites are undergoing a multi-year demolition and rebuild under The City’s HopeSF initiative, which will bring a mix of affordable and market rate housing to the sites.
“This Wi-Fi network is intended to serve the residents of the existing units during the rebuilding,” Linda Gerull, head of the Department of Technology, told the San Francisco Examiner in an email.
In past years, the lack of internet access at home for an estimated 100,000 San Francisco residents was highlighted as a significant equity failure, but the COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the need.
“In light of the pandemic, there is a strong need for reliable internet connectivity to access distance learning and other essential online services,” Cindy Gamez, procurement analyst for the San Francisco Housing Authority, told the commission. “The authority would like to collaborate with the Department of Technology in providing this much needed Wi-Fi service.”
In April 2018, The City released a digital equity report based on focus groups at six public housing sites and workforce centers that found “affordability is the most commonly cited challenge.”
“Internet and computers are too expensive for many public housing residents and workforce clients, leading to low subscription and ownership levels when compared to the city average,” the report said. “Only about half of participants have home internet connections, with fewer having desktop or laptop computers. Instead, the majority rely on mobile devices and data plans for connectivity.”
The Sunnydale project costs about $670,000, which includes installing fiber at five locations and then establishing a wireless bridge connecting the 50 buildings on the site. The Potrero site will be similarly designed and costs $346,000.
It would be an open network with an anticipated speed of 50 megabits. The signal is accessed through people’s devices with no additional equipment needed in their homes.
In addition to the Wi-Fi, the commission also voted to provide up to $300,000 in grant funding to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to be split equally among the two sites.
Brian Cheu, director of Community Development with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said the grant for Sunnydale would be issued to a nonprofit to focus on tutoring and academic skill building for school-age children with a goal of serving 120 weekly. The grant for Potrero would go to a nonprofit to serve about 30 youth weekly to focus on “mental health issues that a number of the young people are going through right now.”
Cheu said they plan to provide the grants for services for one year once the Wi-Fi network is established to “to try and grab people at that time when the excitement is highest and be able to maximize their connection to it.”
The digital divide is drawing renewed attention at the Board of Supervisors, which approved a resolution Tuesday adopting recommendations from the Economic Recovery Taskforce report that called for dedicated annual funding to expand fiber to affordable housing sites.
Gerull, head of the Department of Technology, told the Housing Authority Commission Thursday that since starting the Fiber to Housing program in 2018 to reduce the digital divide at affordable housing sites, a collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and local internet provider Monkeybrains, they have connected about 7,300 units to broadband or Wi-Fi.
“The need is much greater than what we have completed to date,” Gerull said. “There are approximately 30,000 units and households to be connected and those at affordable housing locations.”
The resolution, introduced by Supervisor Ahsha Safai, requests Gerull’s department to submit a report by June 1 to provide a cost estimate for connecting affordable housing sites and Single Room Occupancy hotels as well as “a literature review of the past 20 years of The City’s efforts to close the digital divide.”
“The City has been trying to solve the digital divide for more than two decades,” Safai said at a recent board committee hearing. “The City has yet to begin to really bridge that for our most vulnerable.”
Safai said he intends to create a “multi-pronged plan that ends the digital divide.”