Free Wifi Promised To Open Opportunities in Harlem More than 80,000 Harlem residents are being promised free public wireless internet. But similar projects in other cities have run out of fuel. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with the New York City Housing Authority's Dupe Ajayi about the plan.
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Free Wifi Promised To Open Opportunities in Harlem

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Free Wifi Promised To Open Opportunities in Harlem


Next, a community in Harlem is getting a makeover of its technology. More than 80,000 residents of New York City's Harlem neighborhood may get free public Wi-Fi service by the middle of 2014. The project will extend for 95 blocks. That'll make it the largest, continuous, free, outdoor, public wireless network in the nation, if it succeeds. Some of that Wi-Fi will be delivered by digital vans.

The vehicles will park at different locations during the week so residents who don't have Internet access at home can get online. Joining us today from our New York bureau is Dupe Ajayi who's the digital communications manager at New York City Housing Authority. And she was also recently a part of our NPR Blacks in Tech series. Dupe, thank you so much for joining us.

DUPE AJAYI: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So this is expected to provide digital access for 13,000 public housing residents, but there's more than 400,000 in public housing in New York City. So this is a drop in the bucket. What kind of impact do you expect it to have?

AJAYI: These digital vans have already served over 4,000 individuals in five boroughs in the areas that need it most. And so now we're figuring out this targeted area of Harlem where Wi-Fi access is being offered to those individuals in public housing and then also, too, those outside of public housing as well.

HEADLEE: But this kind of thing has been tried before, right? We've had similar initiatives in Cleveland. And then in California in 2006, Google offered no-cost Wi-Fi. But what ended up happening was the network got so overloaded that the Wi-Fi became so slow, laggy, it would drop out, that it wasn't usable anymore. How do know that's not going to happen in Harlem?

AJAYI: We don't. But one of the things that we're working on is this is going to be rolled out in three phases, right. You're going to have, first, one community being tested, and then we'll move to another. And then as you've said, in the middle of 2014, then we'll have a full rollout.

Thanks to the office of - it's called DoITT, which focuses on all of the city's technology. This project is part of providing access, overall, to New Yorkers who don't have access to wireless services. Our digital bands have kind of been leading the way in doing that work. You see them go from each development. Over the course of two weeks, there's a rotation where you have individuals who can not only receive Wi-Fi, but they can actually come into these vans and learn everything from how to create a Twitter account, to how to produce a resume and use basic Microsoft Outlook.

HEADLEE: Often, elderly residents won't even know the first thing about how to use Wi-Fi. Who is your targeted audience? Describe to me somebody that you think would get the best use out of this.

AJAYI: So far, the vans have served individuals - everyone from ages 7 to 70. There is no typical audience. We have offered everything from, like I said, being able to come in and learn the very basics of computer literacy, all the way to how to protect your computer with services provided directly from Semantic themselves. In between that, our vans have not only offered these literacy programs, but then also, too, they've really done a great job of fortifying and bolstering our other departments as well. So for example, there's our Department of Resident Economic Engagement and Sustainability.

And that team is specific to providing job opportunities for those who are in low-income areas who are NYCHA residents. During hurricane Sandy, our vans were present, and then post, one year later, our vans were on the scene actually helping individuals sign up for something called NYCHA alerts. And that's where residents can come in, they can sign up to find out about the latest outages, and if there's anything that's happening in their specific development. They provide so many different services that the audience is now very, very vast.

HEADLEE: Help me understand exactly how this works. I'm a person that's in a public housing project in Harlem. I need to go online, maybe to update my resume on Google Drive or something. I have to go - do I go out to the van and actually get in this van? Or how do I do it?

AJAYI: Great question. Yeah you can. So these vans are equipped with six laptops a piece. You can come in. There's also a printer. And that's where the Wi-Fi hub actually lives. So if you wanted, you can come in and hang out in the vans. They're out there during the entire day from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. if weather is permitting. And they operate most of the weekday. They're there almost five days a week.

HEADLEE: Obviously, you're the digital communications manager at New York City Housing Authority. But very often when we talk about the digital divide, it's between rural and urban. To a certain extent, New York City is low hanging fruit. If you're working mostly on your mobile device and you can't get it at your home, you go to a nearby Starbucks and they have free Wi-Fi there. But if you're in a rural area, there's no place to go, right?

AJAYI: This is true. But one of the things, again, pointing to the digital roadmap, what we found is that if you're a young person and you need to get, say for example, a report done, you may not have the option of going to a Starbucks and paying $6 for a drink in order to, you know, have access to their Internet. You may not have that option. And we have found and we've seen studies of people who actually have become, you know, desperate, and that's the means of, you know, maybe posting up in a McDonald's or what have you. A young person who has work to do, you know, it is, you know, a hindrance to them.

And so this NYC-Connected Communities, which includes these digital vans, they provide something that nobody else would probably have access to otherwise. So you're right, a lot of people do have access to connectivity, but it comes at costs, right? And so the idea is that, you know, we want to provide something where no matter how much money you have, you're still able to have the same type of access as somebody who can afford to get a $6 drink every day. That is the idea.

HEADLEE: Dupe Ajayi is the digital communications manager at New York City Housing Authority. And she joined us from our New York bureau. Dupe, thank you so much.

AJAYI: Thank you so much, Celeste. Happy holidays.

HEADLEE: You too.

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