In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. when internet access is essential for work, school, and staying connected, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) has partnered with Project Waves to bring free internet access to hundreds of families in West Baltimore.
Project Waves is a Baltimore-based organization founded in 2018 with the mission to close the technology gap that disproportionately affects low-income and minority households by providing highly available, transparent, and reliable internet access to families across the city.
“A lot of these disparities have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Adam Bouhmad, 24, a Baltimore native and the founder and director of Project Waves. “There are students who aren’t able to access online resources and be part of the educational system while they’re at home, so being able to provide free internet access to families is definitely humbling. We see internet access as a human right and a necessary utility.”
Roughly one-third of Baltimore City does not have access to broadband internet in their homes. As described in the Deutsch Foundation’s Digital Access and Equity Report in Baltimore City 2017, the internet is arguably the most important communication tool of the 21st century. Timing for this collaboration is even more crucial amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has many schools, employers, and organizations relying on virtual platforms that use the internet.
“We’re seeing this problem as a five- to 10-year issue,” Bouhmad says. “No one’s going to bridge this problem in a month or even a year. What this really takes is a broad coalition of support from communities and from stakeholders across the city, so there’s much more work to do and a lot more relationship-building to be done.”
By partnering with UMB, Project Waves can use the community relationships built and fostered through the University’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) over the last five years. Thanks to this partnership, Project Waves and UMB have connected more than 20 families in the West Baltimore area to the internet. They anticipate hundreds of more families.
“There is a critical need for stable, high-speed internet in light of the current pandemic,” says Barnard Smit, program coordinator at the CEC. “The idea that we share this city with residents who do not have access to a stable form of connectivity is unacceptable when the infrastructure is readily available and should be obtainable to all.”
UMB has been a great support for Project Waves to reach a number of families in West Baltimore through communication efforts on several fronts including UMB’s partner school, James McHenry Elementary/Middle School, and grassroots efforts such as handing out flyers and knocking on doors.
“You’ve come through to help us ensure that we close the digital gap and provide our families with internet when we needed your help,” James McHenry Elementary/Middle School principal Chris Turk told the UMB community in a video during Founders Week. “We still need help with laptops, with internet access. All of this is about closing an inequitable digital gap that we all know is unfair and has impacted all of our students and families that need to get online every day to make virtual learning the best thing possible.”
How the Wi-Fi Access Works
Project Waves and UMB have been working together to install Wi-Fi towers on top of buildings in West Baltimore such as James McHenry Elementary/Middle School and the Baltimore Robotics Center.
In addition to the Wi-Fi towers, Project Waves has installed relay stations and sector antennas at several locations across the city including on top of UMB’s new CEC at 16 S. Poppleton St. The relay stations and sector antennas receive a signal from the Wi-Fi towers and distribute that signal out to the broader community across West Baltimore.
Community members can use this free internet access after contacting the CEC. An installation team will come to the community member’s home, set up an internet modem, and assist the family with connecting their devices to the high-speed Wi-Fi for free. After the modem has been installed and the devices are connected, Project Waves has a customer service team that will follow up with community members to make sure everything is working properly.
“Having this free access feels great, and it has definitely made my life easier,” says Toniece Jackson, a resident of the Pigtown neighborhood. “I use it on all of my children’s devices for both educational and recreational purposes. I also use it to tap into things in my community, so it has changed my life.”