About 40,000 people in Fort Worth can now get free Wi-Fi in their neighborhoods.
The city has partnered with technology provider Cisco to bring connectivity to five neighborhoods that are historically underserved. The free Wi-Fi covers more than two-thirds of Fort Worth residents who lacked internet access, and it is Cisco’s largest rollout of this type of neighborhood Wi-Fi in the country.
The initiative was created to promote digital inclusion for Fort Worth residents who lack home internet. The five neighborhoods are Ash Crescent, Como, Northside, Rosemont and Stop Six.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the digital divide when many people were asked to work and learn remotely, but communities lacked reliable access.
“Initially, we had this idea as kind of a response to the pandemic,” said Kevin Gunn, chief technology officer for the city of Fort Worth. “When people were staying at home and social distancing, the city created a lot of aid programs that help folks who were blocked out to deliver those services digitally.”
The city started to look for a way to turn its vision into a reality and turned towards one of its existing vendors, Presidio, working in collaboration with Cisco.
“It goes beyond this initial problem that as a nation we saw – which is underserved communities having affordable, accessible and secure broadband,” said Gary DePreta, Cisco’s area vice president for state, local governments and education. “Really, we see the long term impact going well beyond students accessing school services.”
With free connection, residents in these neighborhoods can now access remote classes, attend virtual medical appointments, conduct online job searches and apply for social services.
“It allows cities like Fort Worth to begin outreach and delivering services to our citizens,” DePreta said. “Things like health care, social services, likewise. By having access to internet broadband, it’s an exciting opportunity that goes beyond the digital equity issue and becomes an economic development issue.”
Similar to public Wi-Fi offered in Fort Worth libraries and community centers, Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul has extended to these surrounding communities. Accessing the network is as simple as going to one’s wireless network settings on a laptop, phone or tablet and selecting CFW-Neighborhood.
Wireless networking equipment is already in place and ready for use. Equipment was mounted on utility and light poles along the streets of these communities so people can access it from their homes with no cost.
“We want them to use it,” Gunn said. “We want them to better their lives through access to the internet, and we’re happy to provide it.”
The community Wi-Fi in Fort Worth is the largest deployment of Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul for neighborhood Wi-Fi use in America, according to the company. The city has been rolling out equipment over the past two years, though there were some delays with issues related to the pandemic, labor and weather.
“This is a huge step in the right direction, and the city is committed to executing on more long-term projects that will increase Internet accessibility for more residents,” Mayor Mattie Parker said in a statement.
Similar to power and water, the internet is a basic necessity for Fort Worth communities to be successful, Parker said.
The city designated $5 million in federal CARES Act funds for this project. To supplement the pandemic-related funding, which expired at the end of 2021, the city also allocated money from the American Recovery Planning Act.
“Our corporate vision statement is to help power an inclusive future for all and we really do believe that broadband is just, you know, kind of an essential human right,” DePreta of Cisco said. “The great news is this has been a bipartisan issue that has now been funded. And now we’re solving in kind of a local, municipal level within the cities themselves.”
Creating digital equity is a complex problem to solve, DePreta said. The architecture and technology needed to support local communities is different in Fort Worth than another downtown metro. He stressed the importance of partnership within government and the technology industry.
“It really does take the local community leaders to be that catalyst,” DePreta said. “As we say, it takes a village to come together and solve this digital equity issue.”
The new internet rollout is not the only Fort Worth initiative to solve the problem. Fort Worth school district and the city previously partnered to deliver Wi-Fi to students learning from home and living in areas with low rates of broadband access.
“We are kind of on the leading edge of these efforts and somewhat experimental,” said Gunn, who works for the city. “Not a lot of folks across the country have attempted this, as well as government entities especially have not attempted this. I look forward to the things we’re going to learn about how to provide internet access to families in urban areas, suburban areas and rural areas.”
This story was originally published August 17, 2022 2:09 PM.