Richmond free WiFi project could expand countywide

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Iron Triangle resident Yolanda Lopez's (in red) home has been equipped to provide free WiFi to 40 homes in her neighborhood. Lopez said she is grateful for the free access.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia wants to expand a plan to provide free high-speed Internet access in the Iron Triangle neighborhood to low-income residents throughout the county.

At its meeting Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to explore the idea of  expanding free WiFi for low-income residents in order to bridge the digital divide.

Only a few hours after the hearing, the possibilities were showcased at Yolanda Lopez’s home at 217 Bissell Ave. in the Iron Triangle neighborhood.

Equipment installed on the roof of Yolanda Lopez’s home will reportedly be able to provide free WiFi access to about 40 homes in the neighborhood. The plan is to install similar equipment on 19 more houses by summer that will connect 400 homes in the neighborhood.

The free service is possible due to a three-year $500,000 grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund to increase digital literacy in Richmond.

The nonprofit Internet Archive is providing the broadband frequency, using three high-up tower locations in the city, including a 40-foot tower at 2512 Florida Ave., said engineer Ralf Muehlen.

Muehlen said the Internet connection isn’t only free, it’s fast.

“Fifteen megabits per second,” he said outside Lopez’s home.

Internet Archive teamed on the project with Building Blocks for Kids, a community collaborative in the Iron Triangle that published a 58-page report on the need for Internet access in the community.

A third of Iron Triangle residents lack Internet access at home compared to 80-percent in all of the Bay Area, and two of five residents don’t own a working computer, the report said.

Providing Internet access and computer training will improve the health of neighborhood families, BBK said.

Students are one group that need access, advocates say, as the Internet has become key to the learning process.

“We live in a time when access to information, academic success, economic advancement, and participation in civic life increasingly require technological competence,” the BBK report said.

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