Where’s WiFi in Oakland when you need it?

There’s been more attention recently on getting wireless Internet access to rural or remote parts of the world, but closing the digital divide here in cities can be just as difficult. The “digital divide” is the inequality between those who can reliably connect to the Internet and computers and those who cannot. In East and West Oakland, it’s estimated that 30% of households fall in this divide, making it more likely these communities are cut off from the tools and resources they need online.

One solution may be municipal WiFi, or free, city-owned wireless networks. While few cities have been able to be so ambitious, there are major exceptions. Earlier this year, San Jose launched its own wireless, Wickedly Fast WiFi, to energize its downtown. While it’s too early to tell how successful the project will be, it already offers an impressive 10 Mbps (megabits per second) of download speed — versus the standard 1 Mbps at your local Starbucks — and reaffirms the city’s commitment to being a tech hub.

Would municipal WiFi be right for Oakland? The city has weighed this option before, but repeatedly turned it down. Bruce Buckelew, who has advised the mayor’s office on information technology and co-chaired 2011’s Get Connected Oakland initiative, agrees the city made the right decision. “It would’ve been disastrous.”

Other than the technical parameters, there are a number of costs and considerations holding back an undertaking like this, including whether to partner with a private wireless company. (San Jose’s network cost  about $94,000 to install, another $20,000 every year to maintain.)  There are still others who argue that wireless isn’t the only answer for Oakland. Besides, Buckelew adds, “The city’s so understaffed, even a good idea takes work.”

Buckelew is the founder and director of  Oakland Technology Exchange West (OTX), an e-waste recycling program that redistributes computers at a low cost to students. It started in 1999, when the digital divide meant simply not having access to a word processor. As broadband and wireless devices picked up speed, OTX has kept up with the demand. But the digital divide hasn’t gone away, he says. In fact, such advances have only made the gap harder to understand and easier to overlook. “People who don’t live around low-income neighborhoods,” Buckelew says, “have no idea there’s even a divide.”

One challenge is empowering people getting online as producers, not consumers, he says. For all the mobility and benefits of a smartphones, he adds, “you can go on YouTube, but you can’t work on a resume.” Buckelew believes we can do better by investing in computer labs like those at the public library. OTX is currently planning a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to replace the more than 200 computers  in the city’s recreational centers. It’s about these creating these safe places, Buckelew says, for committed work.

The biggest barrier may not even be access to computers, but motivation. A report put out by the the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in September said that about 15% of American adults are not online, and do not regularly use the Internet or email. Much of this has to do with perceived privacy threats and the high price of Internet services. Even more people are asking, “What’s the use?”

Oakland Digital (ODALC) is an organization that has worked to expand digital literacy overall. The focus is on skills training and letting the community know what resources are out there, especially for small businesses and undeserved communities. Founder and Executive Director Shaun Tai explains that Oakland Digital provides these services “not by design, but by need,” so information ranges from managing social media accounts to the very basics, like “how to scroll.”

Tai says he’s noticed a shift in the mindset in Oakland. When the organization first stated in 2009, the city was debating being on Facebook. “Now it’s assumed,” Tai says. He sees a growing culture that embraces digital, tech-specific blogs, and hackathons, and sees the Internet making way for opportunity and productivity. The challenge now is making sure everyone sees Oakland that way.

Tai admits that Internet access and closing the gap are essential. He, like Buckelew, believes the digital divide has evolved. But Tai questions whether or not hardware is the answer, if computer access is needed when laptop and desktop computers can be found on eBay at reduced prices. If you want WiFi, he says, there are coffeehouses, but municipal WiFi is outdated and the infrastructure just isn’t impressive. “It’s so 1990s,” says Tai.

At this point, he argues, access isn’t the biggest issue — it’s also “assumed.” He suggests Oakland focus on increasing Internet speeds and reliability, essentially “beefing up” the systems already in place. More importantly, it’s about learning skills and emerging technology. Recently, Oakland Digital gave out 1,000 Square mobile credit card readers downtown. Tai says it’s a step that’s better at convincing people how new technology applies to their everyday lives.

The digital divide may not seem as urgent a problem as other disparities felt within the community. Large-scale projects like municipal WiFi might be out of reach, but the work that Tai and Buckelew are doing suggests that small projects can work for Oakland — projects that closely engage the community and are about resources more than money. Oakland Digital promotes a concept called  “social WiFi,” which allows passersby to use the office’s WiFi in exchange for a “tweet” about Oakland Digital or a Facebook “like.” The digital divide is not just talk anymore, Tai says, it’s about action. “We just want to bypass government and do something cool.”

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