Building a Wireless OneCommunity

By Adam Stone

October 09, 2006

This nonprofit provides broadband for communities in Cleveland, Ohio, along with the applications that bring them together.

Can Wi-Fi fight poverty, open minds and change the way a community sees itself?

Scot Rourke thinks so. As president of OneCommunity in Cleveland -- the group was formerly called OneCleveland -- he's bent on showing the potential of Wi-Fi to bring new life and new hope to impoverished communities. To that end, his organization in September held a day-long demonstration, showing off the power of high-speed wireless to spread meaningful information throughout the community.

"Proving the value of technology and how it can provide a better quality of living: that is really the challenge," Rourke says.

OneCommunity connects public and nonprofit institutions to a next-generation fiber optic network throughout Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, then uses Wi-Fi to deliver a range of innovative applications.

In the recent demonstration, OneCommunity put on a technological tour de force with partners from the public and private sectors, including the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, Case Western Reserve University (both founders of OneCleveland, along with the city, library, Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University) and Cisco Systems. Demonstrations were as follows:

  • Three regional hospitals teamed to provide local students with live streaming footage of medical procedures, including open heart surgery.
  • A home user sat on her front porch watching on a laptop as a doctor instructed her in real time how to best control her medical conditions, which the doc viewed via remote sensors.
  • At a senior center, a Cisco device boosted the signal from an outdoor mesh to improve wireless connectivity indoors. Some healthcare applications included live chat with a nurse and an application that helped blind people surf the Web.
  • In a local library, a wireless link allowed users to download audio books and videos. "Under the mesh, you could actually go to the library Web site, go to their e-book banks and download an audio book on the fly, right onto a Wi-Fi-enabled phone," Rourke says. "It's actually very cool."

While medical marvels might be a core theme here, there's a statistic that shows an ever more profound element. In a city plagued by poverty within its black community, "our participants, our speakers, our CEOs were more than 80 percent African American," Rourke says.

OneCommunity has as its mission the transformation of communities, including a broadly defined effort to help turn the tide of poverty. This mission has technological implications. To Rourke, it suggests that the mere delivery of connectivity is insufficient.

"Infrastructure without applications is not going to be used," Rourke says. "So we have thought as deep and as hard about the application layer as any city out there. It's not about infrastructure. It's about relevant applications that transform communities. Access is mission critical, certainly, but it's irrelevant if you don't have the applications."

Certainly, access has driven the effort. Over the past two years, the organization has built out fiber to more than 300 schools, libraries, hospitals and government buildings. Telecom and utility companies have donated hundreds of miles of core fiber in the name of economic development.

Such infrastructure is only the start, however. In order to take it to the next level, OneCommunity has sought to mount the impressive shows of applications that can help convince potential users that connectivity is worth their time and effort.

Take for instance a recent demonstration in which OneCommunity enlisted the help of volunteer students and professionals to help people find their unclaimed tax refunds. In 90 days, participants were able to locate $3 million in unclaimed refunds, a heady demonstration of the power of connectivity.

To keep momentum moving, OneCommunity has mounted a one-year pilot project offering free Wi-Fi within a five square mile area of Cleveland. While most potential users won't have wireless-enabled devices of any sort, OneCommunity has a plan for helping people to make the connection, by disseminating laptops and other devices to libraries, churches and community centers, where volunteers can help users navigate diverse applications.

"Our strategy is to put the devices in the hands of intermediaries who have the capacity to train people in these applications," Rourke says. "We have a lot of people in the community centers and churches. They just need the training and the programming that we want them to have so that they can then reach out into the neighborhoods."

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