Free Wi-Fi spreads across Downtown Eastside

Free and easy Wi-Fi access in the Downtown Eastside.

It’s an idea that's percolated for about a decade, according to Roland Clarke.

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The need is obvious for low-income residents — while they might have old laptops or smartphones, many don’t have good credit or the money to cover a monthly fee for data or an Internet connection. But most need Internet access for things such as basic email connection to friends and family, for job search or for accessing social services, many of which offer online services only.

Through the years, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, W2 Community Media Arts and Hastings Crossing BIA were among numerous groups that championed the idea of creating a neighbourhood Wi-Fi system.

But the proposition recently started to come to fruition thanks to Clarke and Jacek Lorek, coordinators for the Downtown Eastside Street Market.

When the market set up operations on a lot at 62 East Hastings between Columbia and Carrall streets, they created a makeshift office in a shipping container and managed to get it hooked up to the Internet.

“Immediately we said, ‘Why don’t we just figure out how to open up a Wi-Fi hotspot because we have Internet anyway and see if we can figure out how to run it,’” Clarke said. “So it started around October or November last year and then it just basically mushroomed.”

The pair discovered a company called Open-Mesh, which produces low-cost plug-and-play wireless mesh networks that spread an internet connection. The devices cost just under $100.

One was installed outside the shipping container high up on a pole, covered by a waterproof casing.

Since the Wi-Fi signal got a little weaker across the street from the market’s Hastings Street site, they put a repeater facing the window in the room of a woman who lives in the Lux apartments. It rebroadcasts the signal to about 50 more people. Then they put another repeater in the SBC Restaurant on East Hastings between Main and Columbia.

“Slowly we expanded the network of repeaters, so now I think we have 20 or 21 access points in total across the neighbourhood and many of them just repeat the signal from our office at 62 East Hastings,” Clarke said.

They have another Internet connection at the street market site at 501 Powell St. near Oppenheimer Park where they also set up free Wi-Fi access.

“We expanded slowly in a really interesting and organic way,” Clarke said. “And now when I look at the network, over 700 people a day connect to the free system. If you look at last month, it’s over 4,200 people connected.”

Access is permitted though a gateway similar to what many coffee shops use for their free Wi-Fi service.

“It’s obviously a heavily throttled reduced bandwidth service because we don’t want it to kill our Internet connection, but it’s good enough so people can read their email or use Facebook or connect with a family member or something like that,” he said. “It just shows the overwhelming need here in the neighbourhood. People are constantly walking around looking for open hotspots.”

Those who need it can also buy a high-speed voucher from the street market, which is experimenting with revenue models. Besides the hardware costs, it has a recurring cost for the Internet connection, which might be $40 or $50 at each location. The street market is trying to offset that expense by offering the vouchers for better broadband service at a cost of $3 a week or $10 a month.

(Free use is limited to less than a megabyte per second of download speed, which while fine for email and simple tasks is not friendly to YouTube and other services that eat up a lot of data.)

The Carnegie has Wi-Fi available through Vancouver Public Library, but it’s only on the first floor of the building. Other libraries are a distance away.

“The other alternative would be restaurants or coffee shops and you might not be able to afford a meal or you might be harassed if you just want to sit down, so the truly free Wi-Fi hotspots are actually fairly rare,” Clarke said.

Jordan Supernault was surprised to discover free Wi-Fi in parts of the Downtown Eastside. A friend told him about it, but he didn’t believe it at first.

“Are you talking about free Wi-Fi?” he asked while sitting on a bike waiting to cross Hastings at Columbia. “I noticed that. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at it — it was just like ‘Free Wi-Fi for low income-housing people that can’t afford it?’… I use it. I’m happy with it. I’m happy I even get to use it.”

The 28-year-old said he uses it to connect with family on Facebook or Messenger because he can’t afford data.

“I think it’s a wicked idea. We all get to do things that maybe we wouldn’t think of being able to do — simple things like making a resume or job search.”

Lorek said he’s approached about it at the market all the time, but he’s not surprised after, at one point, being without Internet access in his own building for three years.

“Every day someone asks if they can get it set up in their building because it’s not reaching yet or it’s not strong enough. So there is a demand for it — a big demand,” he said.

Comments about the free Wi-Fi on the street market’s blog include: “I am stuck in my "kennel" ... otherwise known as an SRO... of course, I am sick. thank you so much. This connection to the outside rocks,” as well as “thank you so much for the wifi, i so needed this, can't afford to eat on my income, so this is a huge bonus!!! thank you,” and “I'm new here and this WiFi has helped me greatly, without it I would be extremely lost. Thank you for not forgetting us lower income people.”

The City of Vancouver recently worked with Telus to bring free Wi-Fi access to six sites in the city: Mount Pleasant, Champlain Heights, Coal Harbour and Roundhouse community centres, as well as the Langara and Fraserview golf courses. It will be expanded to an additional 37 sites in the coming months, including four new sites in the coming weeks: Creekside Community Recreation Centre, the Gathering Place, Trout Lake Community Centre and the McCleery Golf Course Club House.

Users at the six initial sites need only select the #VanWiFi network from their Wi-Fi settings menu and follow the instructions.

The street market, however, used its petty cash fund to buy its repeaters to set up a system in the Downtown Eastside as quickly as possible. So far, they’ve spent less than $5,000 for hardware.

“It was shocking to me how many people you could reach for how little money in hardware,” Clarke said. “I think that it is absolutely conceivable that we could have a neighbourhood Wi-Fi system that could span the entire five by 10 blocks of the Downtown Eastside and it would be completely affordable. You could imagine doing it for in the order of $40,000 or $50,000 or less” he suspects. “And almost everywhere someone would be within a half a block of a Wi-Fi signal. It’s an incredible goal for such a poor neighbourhood.”

Clarke considers it an equalization project. He argues it’s so important that the city and the province should view it as an essential service and think about providing it for low income people.

 “I think the average Vancouverite instinctively does [realize its importance]. It’s just if you’re at a certain place in the socio-economic scale, you don’t often think about it because you probably have Internet at home, you probably have Internet at work and you can probably afford a coffee if you want to sit at Starbucks and enjoy the Internet,” he said. “What’s missing is the realization that if you don’t have Internet at home or at work or you don’t work, then you are almost helpless in today’s society. It’s like you’re set back 50 years in terms of your capabilities compared to the average person. That’s probably what the average Vancouverite needs to think about — imagine if you don’t have Internet. And that’s true for the bottom 10 to 20 per cent of our society.”

noconnor@vancourier.com

@naoibh

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