Local Universities, Nonprofit Provide Free Internet To K-12 Students

Nov 17, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create the digital divide, but it did shine a spotlight on it. With so many students attending class online, one local collaboration is aiming to provide free, high-speed internet access in the Coraopolis, Homewood and New Kensington areas. The signal will beam from atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. 

Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research have partnered to offer the free Internet service called Every1online. Equipment will be installed atop the Cathedral of Learning on Tuesday.

“To live and work in today’s digital society, it is essential to have access to the internet. Reliable internet access is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity and a right,” said Adam Longwill, executive director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities. 

The initiative will provide free WiFi to eligible households during a one-year pilot program in Coraopolis, New Kensington and Homewood. The collaborative hopes to expand the program to additional communities in Western Pennsylvania after the first 12 months.

Participating school districts include the New Kensington-Arnold and Cornell (Coraopolis) school districts, as well as the Homewood Children's Village. The program is designed to prioritize households with students, but anyone within the service area can sign-up to see if they're eligible to receive equipment and connect to the network. The first registered homes will get online in the coming months, according to Longwill. 

The signal will broadcast from the Cathedral of Learning to the three pilot neighborhoods through a network provided by the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research. In each neighborhood, a repeater tower exists to send that signal into registered homes. 

Meta Mesh’s website says each household will have 50 mpbs of download capacity and 25 mbps of upload capacity. Those speeds will allow several members of a household to be in online video meetings at the same time without dropouts, something remote learning students need.

As the director of technology and instructional innovation at the Cornell School District, Kris Hupp’s job is to bring technology into the classroom. But when the classroom moved online, that got more complicated. Cornell is currently offering classes in a hybrid model with some students online and two groups of students –a morning group and an afternoon group – in person.

“We had some students or families who wanted to do [remote learning] but didn’t have reliable internet in their homes,” he said. Hupp heard from 10 families interested in the program in the first few days since it was announced.

“The pandemic’s just exposed inequities that we already see from community to community and this provides that sort of safety net,” Hupp said.

Cornell students aren’t alone in their need for reliable internet. According to U.S. Census data from 2014-2018, nearly one in five families in Allegheny County do not have a broadband Internet subscription.

“This partnership will no doubt have a meaningful impact on bridging the digital divide in communities that are literally within view of the iconic Cathedral of Learning. We’re grateful for the opportunity to contribute to improving educational outcomes in these school districts, and the resulting long-term benefits for the region,” Mark Henderson, the University of Pittsburgh’s Vice Chancellor and CIO, said.

Interested households can register here through Jan. 31, 2021.