Oakland Chief Information Officer Andrew Peterson said he has been advocating for a municipal Wi-Fi project since he came to the job three years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

Joining the ranks of San Jose and San Francisco, Oakland will soon roll out free Wi-Fi across a large portion of the city. One of the program’s goals is to help close the digital divide for roughly 25,000 students and make the internet more accessible for people who don’t have home access right now. Eventually, the city plans to expand coverage to most Oakland neighborhoods.

Branded “OakWiFi,” the city’s network will go live first in downtown and West Oakland in the next few weeks with connection speeds of up to 100 mbps.

The city is paying for the project using $7.7 million of Oakland’s federal coronavirus relief CARES Act funding. City staff had intended to roll out OakWiFi to more neighborhoods, but limited funding and the need to repair fiber optic cables in East Oakland forced the city to scale back its timeline. The plan is to finish testing and expand wireless internet into East Oakland next year.

“We’ll be able to roll out OakWiFi with these funds to 75 to 85% of the city and definitely cover most of the flatlands,” said Andrew Peterson, Oakland’s chief information officer.

The city mapped households in the areas that will be first to receive OakWiFi coverage. The majority of households include people of color, low-income, elderly, single parents, and disabled people.

Peterson has wanted to expand the city’s wireless network since he was hired a little over three years ago. He said that a window of opportunity has opened because of the federal COVID-19 relief funding.

During the start of the pandemic, Skyline High School senior and East Oakland resident Jessica Ramos walked to a local library to access Wi-Fi for her schoolwork. Since the library was closed, Ramos sat on a little bench outside and scrambled to finish her work. She did this for two months. 

“My family had to decide either to pay the mortgage or stop paying for other things like the Wi-Fi and cellular data, at some point,” said Ramos. “I was falling behind on assignments to the point that I cared much more about my education instead of my health.”

Ramos said most of her friends living in East Oakland don’t have reliable broadband.

The city’s wireless internet project comes on the heels of the Oakland Undivided campaign, which distributed 25,000 computers to students who didn’t have home internet access. 

“We estimated that over half of our public school students do not have [internet] access,” said David Silver, the director of education in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office. “We launched a campaign so those students would have a computer, stable internet connection, and tech support.”

Peterson said the Wi-Fi program could also help reverse damages done to small businesses on International Boulevard because it will help them “participate in the online economy” necessitated by the pandemic.

Kapor Center’s Lili Gangas posing near a billboard for the upcoming pilot program bringing WiFi free of charge to the Oakland public, November 19th, 2020. Credit: Amir Aziz

Lili Gangas, chief technology community officer at the Oakland-based Kapor Center, said she hopes the city’s Wi-Fi can provide an alternative for Oakland residents who can’t afford to pay high prices set by “monopoly” for-profit cable companies like Comcast. Even the lower prices Comcast and other big companies provided during the pandemic weren’t low enough for many Oaklanders to afford, said Gangas.

But rolling out Wi-Fi is just the first step. “It’s even more than the lack of access and devices,” said Gangas. “We also have to educate all users about data privacy and digital security.”

While downtown and West Oakland have existing fiber optic cable in city buildings that was used to extend free Wi-Fi to surrounding neighborhoods, city staff said they had trouble finding similar infrastructure in East Oakland. That all changed with AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit project, which was built over the last several years and began service this year. The International Boulevard bus route now has 13 miles of fiber for buses and traffic controls, and the city can tap into this for OakWiFi. The city plans to use anywhere from 975 to 1,300 existing street lights as access points that deliver Wi-Fi signals.

While there’ve been setbacks and delays, Peterson said the plan to eventually expand OakWiFi could also utilize fiber cables in BART tracks, connecting even more buildings and reaching more neighborhoods in other parts of Oakland. 

“Unless you’ve been planning this for decades, like some municipalities that actually run their own internet service and fiber, this is the next best thing we can do,” said Peterson.

Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist and photographer based in the East Bay.