Updated: Sep 21, 2021
By Jamie Wiggan
The overnight switch from in-person to remote learning forced a difficult transition for many small, underfunded school districts like Cornell. But community leaders there rolled up their sleeves in search of creative solutions, and the result is a free internet service that will soon go live.
The completed project will use a concept called mesh networking, transmitting data from the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning tower to a receiver in Coraopolis, which will then disperse the data across the Cornell District. Participating households will be able to plug into the network through small antennae installed on the exterior of homes.
“That piece of it functions just like if you had Verizon or Comcast,” said Ashley Patton, a computer science specialist at Carnegie Mellon University who has helped coordinate the project.
A range of organizations based as far away as San Francisco have all played a hand in getting the project off the ground. The coordinators are not yet certain when it will begin operating but they’re confident it will be sometime before the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Mesh networking – pooling excess internet bandwidth into a collective stream – is fairly common, but access is usually limited to outdoor public spaces other than in for-profit contexts. Patton said she is only aware of two existing non-profit examples that provide at-home connectivity through mesh networking, both of which are based outside the U.S.
Funding secured by Carnegie Mellon will cover the upfront expenses and the cost of the first year’s data supply. Beyond that, the partners have committed to finding sustainable ways to fund the project.
“The overall goal is to…share WiFi out to the whole community of Neville Island and Coraopolis,” said Cornell Superintendent Aaron Thomas.
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools to shut down in March, Cornell officials immediately focused on securing internet and computer access for the 30 or so households without home internet.
One solution was supplied by internet service provider Comcast, which launched a program called Internet Essentials to make affordable web service available to qualifying low-income households.
The program provided a helpful stop-gap solution for many Cornell families, according to the district’s technology director, Kris Hupp. But he also said for a variety of reasons not all were able to take advantage of the program; and more importantly, it doesn’t solve the long-term internet access issue that will continue to affect about 10% of district households when the pandemic resolves.
Scouring for creative, sustainable alternatives, Hupp contacted Patton and her colleague, Maggie Hannan, a learning scientist and engagement specialist at Carnegie Mellon University.
“It was really important to us that we not make band-aid solutions going into this,” Patton said. “We wanted to provide something that was durable and a better option than the stop-gap solutions.”
Drawing on her tech contacts, Patton reached out to Metamesh, a non-profit mesh network based in Pittsburgh. Although he told Patton he had no prior experience with projects of this kind, Executive Director Adam Longwill said he was willing to help in whatever way he could.
Shortly afterward, the partners were able to weave together a patchwork of internet donors to channel their overflow to some of those households without internet access.
More recently, the district announced it has also set up a number of free community wireless hotspots at Cottage and Memorial Parks on Neville Island, and Cornell’s football field in Coraopolis.
Launching the district-wide internet supply zone still awaits the installation of a large antenna on a water tower operated by the Coraopolis Sewer and Water Authority. Hannan and Patton both said all entities are eagerly cooperating so that it’s simply a matter of time and paperwork before the service is unveiled.
“It takes everyone’s different forms of social, intellectual and human capital to get this work done,” Hannan said.
District leaders are similarly pleased with what they see as a community-led project, that has so far involved both district municipalities, a volunteer fire company and a handful of local businesses and community leaders.
“It’s been really great to see how people respond to the pandemic and say ‘Hey, how can we help?’” said Hupp.
The full range of coverage is not yet certain but Patton said she estimates the service will reach about 75% of households. The collaborators will try to find “bespoke” solutions for any households that fall outside the zone and don’t have an existing internet connection.
To begin with, coverage will be prioritized to households identified by the district as having the greatest need. In future years, this may be expanded to other population sectors, such as the elderly, and may entail a nominal surcharge to offset operating costs.
Hannan and Patton are simultaneously working with the New Kensington-Arnold School District and Westinghouse Academy of the Pittsburgh School District to provide mesh networks there through the same system.
Other Pittsburgh-area districts, including Sto-Rox, have expressed interest in joining the network.
“Our hope is that we’ll be able to continue to…bring this technology to other neighborhoods in need so that we’re able to cover most of the Pittsburgh area,” Patton said.