Bridging the Digital Divide in Allegheny County
In response to COVID-19 lockdowns, DES partners with Allegheny County to design and install free public Wi-Fi networks.
Scott Hemphill, CIO of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) had long-eyed digital accessibility as a cornerstone of social welfare. So, when COVID-19 jolted the economy to a standstill in March 2020, what had been an indefinite pursuit was now an active necessity.
“When people are forced to stay home, the economic impacts disproportionately carry through to the most vulnerable populations,” Scott explained. “In-home internet services can be difficult for families to both get and maintain. “They certainly can’t afford home internet. We have seen people fall behind on their monthly payments, which affects their credit history, which then prevents them from getting future services. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
Indeed, there is a growing awareness that digital accessibility is more than a commercial resource but a basic human right. Without the internet, it is increasingly difficult to conduct daily business, such as paying bills, applying to jobs, and now with the pandemic, having access to virtual healthcare. When schools shut down in-person education for the duration of the 2020 school year, children without internet access were the hardest hit. On a public welfare level, there are doubtlessly negative repercussions on these children’s academic growth and future career opportunities.
That urgency was front-of-mind for Scott and his team at DHS. A recipient of CARES funding, the federal assistance stimulus to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, DHS was bound to a strict deadline to implement a solution by the end of December 2020. That urgency was front-of-mind for Scott and his team at DHS as they appealed to Allegheny County leadership for help funding a Digital Divide initiative. "We are extremely grateful that Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the Allegheny County Council chose to allocate CARES Act funding towards a mission as important as bridging the Digital Divide,” acknowledged Scott. “This effort wouldn't be possible without their leadership and foresight to set the table for our success."
Accepting these funds, however, constrained DHS to a strict deadline to implement a solution that would be in use before the end of December 2020. Considering the resources that were readily available and could have the broadest impact, DHS quickly realized that their own connectivity was the most powerful commodity they could share with their neighboring communities. They would simply build off the Wi-Fi network inside their buildings and flip it outwards to the public spaces.
Alongside digital access, DHS also spearheaded a program to distribute digital devices. Cementing the initiative was their partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Community Technology Help Desk, which offers free technology support to Pittsburgh residents.
Simple on paper, creating a grid of outdoor Wi-Fi networks is complex. Coverage must be negotiated against environmental obstacles, such as trees or concrete pillars. There are challenges with pinpointing the right location to install the access points and to provide wired connectivity on the backend to make the wireless work. In addition, such a network must have robust cybersecurity but not require significant personnel to manage.
“We knew we needed a partner with experience providing outdoor Wi-Fi,” commented Scott on the DES partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Once we dug into the details, we were convinced that DES had the expertise and bandwidth to get the job done.”
Greg DiFiore, DES networking operations manager, agreed with the challenge, “At their largest location in North Versailles, we designed the outdoor coverage to span 88,000 sq. ft. We use past experience and mapping software to analyze the signal strength across the space and position the Fortinet AP’s to optimize connectivity.”
In total, DES will have designed and installed over 15 outdoor Wi-Fi networks. Locations include the CYF East Regional Office in Penn Hills, the Kingsley Community Center in East Liberty, and the Mon Valley CYF whose office is part of a McKeesport retail strip mall. That network covers the entire parking lot, servicing a steady stream of shoppers.
“We plotted out our locations on a heat map to identify areas of high need and locations where people are already visiting,” detailed Mehgan Hawk, DHS project manager. “We have also published an interactive community Wi-Fi map that shows the amenities at each location – restrooms and benches.”
In addition to designing the network, installing the cabling – and in some cases, installing fiber optic cabling, DES also partnered with DHS in selecting an efficient platform to manage the network. All networks are protected by Fortinet firewalls and are visible on a single pane of glass. The operator can easily see traffic trends, cyber threats and push new policies to each location with a single click.
Bridging the digital divide is a necessary process, but not a particularly difficult one for those companies wishing to do so, reflected Scott Hemphill. Partnering with DES simplified the process of choosing hardware and software and turned the installation work into a turnkey operation.
At the very least, this pandemic has put a spotlight on digital equity and advanced the message of internet access as a human right. DES is proud to have a role in narrowing the digital divide.
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