Free WiFi installed at Douglass Park

The new, solar-powered WiFi system is aimed at improving digital access as CPS plans to continue virtual learning.

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

Students can get high-speed internet for free at the newly-renamed Douglass Park thanks to recently-installed solar-powered WiFi nodes.

Chicago Public Schools plans to have most students doing a mix of in-person and at-home learning this fall, but many students struggled in the spring because they didn't have internet access. Ald. Michael Scott (24th) said he welcomed the solar-powered solution to improve wireless access so students don't get left behind again.

"There is a push that learning continue to happen online or remotely because of COVID," Scott said. "And I want to make sure that the folks that are in my community have the ability to use their devices online whether they have WiFi at home or they don't have any at all."

The WiFi devices installed at the park were donated by Chicago-based tech startup Mesh + , a company that builds solar-powered wireless infrastructure.

"When the pandemic hit, we figured the most efficient way we could help would be to set these up in neighborhoods feeling a higher strain … from e-learning and working from home," said founder Danny Gardner.

Since the devices run on solar energy, they are helpful for bringing digital access to areas that otherwise lack the infrastructure to connect to the internet, Gardner said.

"They are able to reach new areas by eliminating the cable and trenching requirements to get there," Gardner said.

The wireless nodes don't need to be connected to the power grid, which makes them even more versatile. Installation of each device at Douglass Park took only about 10 minutes.

The Chicago Park District worked with Ignite Cities to coordinate a tech-driven solution to the city's digital divide. The project is also supported by Verizon.

As part of CPS' efforts to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic, the district gave out thousands of laptops and tablets to students who didn't have devices at home in the spring. It also distributed wireless hotspots to students experiencing housing insecurity.

The district recently announced it will give free internet access to 100,000 students.

But expanding public WiFi throughout communities that lag behind in digital access will make it easier for families to work and learn outside where they can practice social distancing.

"The hope is that people will come to the park to study, maybe to work. Some of the parks have good areas to work outdoors and take advantage of nature. And to encourage people to socially distance," Gardner said.

The WiFi nodes have also been installed at Kells Park, and the city may begin to expand the pilot program to other neighborhoods.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said the WiFi nodes are versatile and inexpensive enough to be installed all over the city.

"That is what is really exciting to me," Burnett said. "Small, solar powered sites like this can be installed over the city. They make economic sense everywhere."

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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