Sunday, February 5, 2017

Building a case for Community Connectivity: The Frontera Colonia Project


Growing up in South Texas, it was sometimes difficult to understand that there was an entire world outside of our neighborhoods. I'm sure this is the same for every city and town across the world, as perspective is only gained through experience. 


No one captures the Rio Grande Valley of Texas like Gabriel Salazar - http://www.gabrielsalazarart.com/

I was fortunate enough to be raised in an area that was void of a lot of the outside distractions that other children my age had. Our family grew up in a small house, on a dirt road, in a South Texas colonia where we were the only house in the neighborhood with indoor plumbing. As a kid, I didn't know that my neighbors out houses weren't something cool and different, I just assumed that maybe their dads were a little bit more creative. I like to tell everyone that my first Internet was a brown set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. All of our homework, all of our research, and all of our information came from the encyclopedias and the National Geographic World Atlas whose pages were bent and torn from over use. (I always loved the flag section). 
We were also fortunate enough to have family that we could go visit outside of the area, so our perspective was always widening on what the world could be. 

The information that we had access to was not same that other children in our neighborhood had access to, even though some of them, in my childish and naive view, were lucky enough to travel once or twice a year to places like Iowa. As a 6 year-old it wasn’t my time to understand the toll it took on their families as migrant farm workers.

As I grew up and grew out of this area, I've never lost sight of where I came from, especially because of the fact that there are still so many neighborhoods, and kids, in these parts of the world, even here in the United States, that have never made it out of last century. There are over 2,000 colonias in the United States with more than 1,800 of those in the State of Texas alone.




I live in Deep South Texas in an area known as the Rio Grande Valley. I say Deep South Texas because when I say South Texas most people say San Antonio or Houston or Laredo, not knowing that there's an entire other community three hours south of the furthest thing that they can think of. The largest city that we are close to is Monterrey, Mexico, which is about an hour shorter of a drive then going to San Antonio. 

This little strip of the world is torn between two countries, two cultures, and left behind in the information age. A study, as reported from the Center for Public Integrity, showed that our broadband adoption rate was the absolute lowest in the country, at 37%. When you combine that with the number of households below the poverty line, and statistics after statistic about the number of families that earn less than $15,000 per year, it paints a very somber view of our community. 


Data from the Texas Tribune.

When terms like the "digital divide" and the "homework gap" are thrown around throughout the rest of the United States I smirk because the places where it matters the most, at least to me, is in places like this that are so impoverished they generally don't make the radar for what people think about when they think about those types of neighborhoods in the United States. You have what the majority of the U.S. considers tough living conditions, then you have the reality of how worse it can actually be. There may be more similarities between our area of the world and Mexico than there are between us and the United States.

While programs exist to try and push gigabit access to schools, 25 Mbps Broadband connections at home, and tablets or computers into every students hand, there is still an overlooked and significant part of our country that struggles with things like streetlights, paved roads, in-home sewage, and electricity. In addition to this you have a group of working-class parents that are pretty disconnected and may not understand why their kids need access at home. 
For so many in communities like this, broadband access is a luxury that few can afford, however, in order to complete assignments in school and keep up with the other students, it is a necessity. The schools push the students to digital learning, but don’t offer the resources to the community to follow through with every student. In some areas there is no test score for keeping the students connected, so it doesn’t get the attention that other pieces of paper on the superintendent’s desk do.

In an effort to help usher in a new age of information into these neighborhoods, I have always tried to find a solution that would work best to provide connectivity to those students that are getting left behind in the classroom because their families can't afford a connectivity solution at home. Whether it's because food and clothing are more important than Internet, or because the parents don't understand the importance of it, the students are the ones that are unfairly suffering in this push to move everyone over to a device based educational system.

Now that Wi-Fi has been somewhat commoditized, the price points are dropping lower than ever, and there is enough capacity on educational networks to afford some room, we've reached a point where connecting everyone in is no longer just a pipe dream. For people who are trying to help rural America and other parts of the world that have been left out of the connectivity race, there is some light at the end of tunnel.


My local City Commission meeting

Still, what we find holding some of these projects back is far less tangible than a piece of equipment, a place to mount it, or something to plug it into. The political back-and-forth games that are played sometimes hinder the ability for communities to move forward even though they have all the pieces of the puzzle sitting right in front of them. Whether it's because they quantify that the socio-economic impact of this is as significant as it is, or they simply don't understand the benefit of it to the students and the community, more times often than not a simple no can deflate an entire program.

Luckily, with as much exposure as we’ve given this topic in our area, whether through my business or my nonprofit, we've been able to reach a few communities that are willing to let us help them out. One of those communities happens to be the county in which I live, Hidalgo County of Texas. A commissioner who is the current County Commissioner for Precinct 2 of Hidalgo County, Eddie Cantu, believes in creating a level and equal playing field for everyone in the district. I’m not saying others don’t, I’m just saying he’s doing something about it when no one else is. 




This part of the county is a unique area. On one side he has some of the most wealthy people in the county and on the other he has the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. The haves and the have-nots are both over-represented in Precinct 2. From the country club to the colonia, Precinct 2 presents a unique opportunity to do something about a problem that plagues communities across the United States.

Coming together to support the project

Leveraging the partnerships that I've been able to forge with elected county officials and the local school districts, we've all come together to come up with a way that we can help solve the problem with resources that, of the most part, are already available. One of the larger projects that has been successful in Hidalgo County has been a Colonia Streetlight project. It's difficult to imagine growing up in the neighborhood that doesn't have streetlights, but when you combine a lack of proper lighting, a high-level of crime, a high level of poverty, and a low level of education, it makes for a pretty bad recipe for community. Lupe, La Union Del Pueblo Entero, has been able to make significant strides in helping counties and cities recognize the need for something as simple as appropriate lighting in their neighborhoods. 


Why are these streetlights in colonias important to connectivity?

Well, it gives us a place to mount the equipment that doesn’t cost us monthly fees, while providing power. An added benefit to these streetlights: they are all solar powered. They're not operated by the local electric company or co-op, they are powered by the sun and installed using county government funds. From the Wi-Fi perspective, this makes them an absolute godsend. No contract with utility providers, and no per month fee for electrical service. 
Granted, I recognize that this is a unique situation, but a solar powered streetlight can solve more than one problem; providing adequate lighting coverage as well as a mounting assets for wireless networks, security cameras, and any other network connect a device that would benefit the community. 

Our project gains momentum

So, we have the vertical assets, the light poles, that we could use to mount equipment and we have a stake in the project from the county commissioner. That's a huge chunk out of the way for a project like this. Again, sometimes the hardest thing is getting someone to just say yes to a project.

Next, we needed a way to tie the network back into the internet and the local school district. The goal is to provide student access to the school network, maintained and operated by the ISD, and provide public access through the local community resource center. You see, E-Rate won’t let us use e-rate funded assets and service to provide general service to the public (without going through a bunch of hoops for usage based models and other hurdles), and that’s fine. But how do you identify and segment who’s a student and who’s not when you are trying to provide access to everyone to increase the overall education level of the community? This, again, is where having a community partner that is willing to handle that segmentation on their network is a huge asset.


Working with the school district

Instead of over complicating the connection, I approached the local school district and asked them for a simple switch port on the POE switch, the same that would provide a connection to a single wireless access point. The only difference is that this would enable an entire neighborhood for connectivity instead of a single AP. 
Skipping past the political route and going straight to the decision-makers in the information technology department, proved to be successful. I didn’t want what we were trying to accomplish to get lost through meeting after meeting and conversation after conversation. If we went that route, but the time it got to the IT department they’d think we were trying to get them to do all the work and build out a community network. Again, knowledge is power, and the people that hold the knowledge about how something like this would actually work are sometimes the people that immediately say no, because of fear of the scope of the project and not understanding a simplified way in which it can work. In this case, a little understanding, education, and a white board with multiple colored markers went a long way.

Keeping tabs on where we are

Now, we had the political buy-in, the mounting assets, the electrical, and the network connection. Add to that my role as a technology consultant providing the designing, engineering, and building out networks of this type, and we're off to a pretty good start. All we need now is some equipment to type this together.

Why hasn’t this been done before?

The problem with legacy wireless equipment is that it has traditionally been a bit cost prohibitive to think about deploying 20 to 50 wireless access points in a neighborhood. With price tags upwards of $1000 per unit, going into an area that had little or no funding, it was easy to understand how this would never work. However now, our industry is getting down into lower price points for quality equipment making the hardware and overall solutions attainable. 

Choosing the right equipment manufacturer

Through my experience in the industry, building out wireless ISPs to connect rural markets to the Internet and to serve places that were unreachable by cable or fiber, one product brand has always stood the test of time. It started as the Motorola Canopy product and ushered in a new way for Internet service providers to provide access. With thousands of deployments across the globe, the Canopy product was synonymous with providing reliable, robust, and instant connectivity to markets that didn't have the infrastructure or were too far out of the city's reach. 

As more and more deployments of Canopy equipment popped up, other manufactures started to recognize the need for a solution such as this. So across the past 20 years, this industry is a thriving one, with point to multipoint and point to point wireless driving hundreds of millions of dollars per year. 


As times changed and products weaved in and out of this segment of products, the Canopy line was eventually split off from Motorola and Cambium Networks was established. Now, in 2017, The product lines that they are offering include the e500, which is an affordable, outdoor, IP 67 rated, access point. 




With their strength in their legacy point to multipoint product lines, including the addition of their affordable and market driven production of the ePMP line, they now present a complete holistic solution to solve problems like those we have in hidalgo county.


What is the cost of something like this?

Now that we are able to properly identify the equipment that it would take to establish the infrastructure and create a network that would support what we are trying to do, the last leg, and sometimes the most important, is funding. We can have every intention, approval, mounting location, and functioning design, but without the funding for something like this, it’s all just a great idea. The good thing about a network like this is while it used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, over the last few years, that price is now dropped to a much smaller amount. In our specific area where we're talking about our project, we're looking at around $50,000 to complete. From a funding perspective, it’s easier to find $50k than it is to find $500k.


How are we going to pay for this?

While there are a number of avenues to go down as far as funding, I'd like to highlight a few that may work, depending on your environment.


New opportunity arising: Financial Institutions through CRA

Jordana Barton (@JordanaBarton) with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has created a way to increase a financial institutions' community reinvestment act score, while giving their local community the resources to build out of network like this. Her entire handbook and all of her research can be found online here
It's a great way to get financial institutions more involved in the infrastructure of this type of service that is so desperately needed. I’m not totally sure of how it all works, as banking really isn’t my thing, but I would imagine that local financial institutions could provide a way to fund these projects across a handful of years for municipalities. That way, the municipalities get what they need for their citizens, the community gets the connectivity they need for their students and economic development, and the banks get that gold star for reinvesting in their communities. Sounds awesome.

Driving Economic Development

Economic Development Corporations, which are generally funded by the city sales tax, are also a place that can at least start to build the foundation of one of these networks through independent funding. As EDC's try and bring more businesses in, either through offering incentives or by following the example of cities like Mission, Texas, and developing the workforce to be more technically minded, it shows that changing the educational attainment level of the citizens of the community can help drive economic development. When trying to attract businesses to a market, having a solid workforce of students and community can mean the difference between landing a large business and not. 

Think about it. Think about the company you work for and say you had to make the decision to open new office. Would you relocate YOUR business to: 
A. a community that is one of the least connected where students are receiving no applicational education of technology devices or
B: a community with a path to provide a broadband solution for every student and citizen of their community?


Wait, what about E-Rate?


Unfortunately, there isn't any good news for E-Rate. I could be wrong, and I welcome the feedback if I am. While there have been some major developments and changes in the way that funds are made available, it still only covers students for half the day. I still struggle to understand how districts are funded to only provide. 

I still struggle to understand how it makes sense for E-Rate to provide access to schools, but all of that infrastructure, access, and connectivity is not allowed to be used after hours.

E-Rate does a great job from 8AM to 4PM, but what about from 4PM to 8AM? There’s got to be a better way and I can’t wait to see someone take this on. If the citizens of the community are paying into USAC for E-Rate equipment and services that are available 24-hours a day, why can our students only use it during school hours? That’s a pretty bad investment. 
Imagine if we could only use our highways and federally funded roads from 8AM to 4PM? No would would stand for that, whey do we stand for it with broadband access? Grrr.

To achieve our solution, we are simply extending the network into the community using equipment and services that are paid for through a different source. We’re not using E-rate equipment or transport for anyone other than students, and the students are required to use their district issued credentials on district approved devices to gain access to the ISD network. 

Where does that put us? 

In our situation, we now have all of the components ready, except the equipment.
The County is providing the vertical assets, the power (via solar), the broadband connection for non-students, and as much equipment as they can for installation to reduce cost.
The School District is providing the off-load for student connectivity via the single POE port we asked ‘em for.
My company, Frontera Consulting, is engineering and overseeing the build-out of the network and overall functionality of it. Now all we need is the equipment.

"The man who asks a questions is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life." - Confucius.

Seeking a partner in this project and to help prove out the case of how this type of network can impact communities across the globe, I decided to ask Cambium Networks for their help. I did it by using this video:




Cambium Networks has now committed to helping us build out this project by providing the equipment and licensing necessary to make it happen. I cannot explain how grateful I am. Its not even about being grateful for the ability to work on this project as much as it is being thankful for those who have no idea that we are even doing this. 



While we may have an idea about the number of students that this will directly impact the first day we turn it on, there is absolutely no way that we can measure what the impact of this project will be on day 2, or over the course of its lifetime. All we know is that we are doing something right by our community and by the world by helping out. 

Now, with a proven model, it’s time to get to work. 
There are hundreds of thousands of places like this around the world. While we may not have all of the pieces of the puzzle in each of them, we have the knowledge of where to get them and how to get them. Let me know if I can help you build the puzzle - drew@gofrontera.com


-drew

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