Providing public Wi-Fi access helps bridge the digital divide in five key urban neighborhoods.
The City of Fort Worth is home to over 950,000 residents across nearly 350 square miles in North Central Texas. Public Wi-Fi is provided to underconnected neighborhoods using Cisco wireless technology and partner support from Presidio.
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Size: Over 6800 employees
It's easy to take internet access for granted, but some 21 million* American households have limited or no access to the web. We live in a world where job opportunities and applications are completed online, and everything from banking to social services assumes that the customer is digital first. And it's not just adults who are impacted. Up to 59 percent** of lower income parents say that their child faces digital challenges at school, which may lead to lower grades than their peers. In short, access to the internet is an equity issue and a vital investment in any community's future.
As more companies went digital during the pandemic, the situation only got worse. Citizens who were eligible for aid during lockdowns, for example, had no way of claiming it—and that's if they knew that support was available in the first place. In 2020, the City of Fort Worth, Texas, decided to act, rolling out free public Wi-Fi to five of its most impacted neighborhoods: a project that connects 40,000 residents, or two-thirds of those with no internet access in the city.
"Just like power and water, internet has become a basic necessity for our communities to be successful," says Mayor Mattie Parker. "By implementing City of Forth Worth (CFW) Neighborhood Wi-Fi in five neighborhoods, we are working to bridge a steep digital divide in parts of our city that need it the most. Access to Wi-Fi helps empower more residents to complete job applications, do research for schoolwork, attend virtual doctor appointments, complete applications for services, and so much more."
The city had a strategic plan to deliver fiber internet to every neighborhood, but it needed to act quickly to jump-start wireless availability for underserved areas. Using federal funding, it kicked off a project with Cisco and digital services and solutions provider Presidio to create a reliable wireless architecture simultaneously across five neighborhoods. Ash Crescent, Como, North Side, Rosemont, and Stop Six were identified through the Neighborhood Improvement Program as those most in need of accessible Wi-Fi.
“The value of technology like Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul is that it can provide connectivity to communities relatively quickly and ensure neighborhoods are not left behind as we work toward delivering city fiber buildout.”Kevin Gunn, Chief Technology Officer
"We wanted a cost-effective solution that we could install quickly without needing to set up equipment in people's homes. We also needed something simple to access that wasn't going to incur ongoing subscription costs," said Kevin Gunn, chief technology officer at City of Fort Worth. "It won't be similar to a purchased service, but it will allow children to do their online homework or let someone fill out an online job application from home."
The project design was in place just 15 days later. The team selected Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul (Cisco URWB) radios to provide "set-and-forget" connectivity, with Cisco Industrial Ethernet 3300 Rugged Series switches and Cisco Meraki MR86 access points. This solution makes it simple to manage the environment in the cloud and provide instant visibility of issues such as outages. Cisco Umbrella provides security and basic content filtering to give users a safe browsing experience.
"The value of technology like Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul is that it can provide connectivity to communities relatively quickly and ensure neighborhoods are not left behind as we work toward delivering city fiber buildout," says Gunn.
Out in the community, the devices were mounted on light poles and public buildings such as schools to send the signal across the city. Presidio produced a site survey to determine where they should be placed to provide optimal coverage and identified obstacles such as trees that were preventing line of sight between radios.
"The project was at the mercy of weather conditions and even an endangered hawk that nested at one of the backhaul sites, but everyone came together for the common good to keep things moving. It was challenging and extremely rewarding," said Gunn. "It would have taken years to deploy a solution of this scale with fiber. This Cisco solution was not only faster, but also means we're incurring minimal incremental operational expenditure."
In addition to installing and customizing the Cisco technology, Presidio provided ongoing support to identify and correct issues in the system while the solution was being deployed. The technology was also fitted with Cisco industrial switches to give the city a future-ready environment should it wish to enhance the network or accelerate its smart city delivery.
With the Cisco URWB solution, the city deploys public Wi-Fi at less than half the cost of fiber. This immediate Wi-Fi access will serve residents during the next five years while the city-wide fiber rollout is in progress.
To date, 10,000 households can access free Wi-Fi, and the remaining 5000 expect to be connected in the coming months. Where once students were staying after hours to use school Wi-Fi or accessing it from parking lots, they can now complete assignments from home. And that goes for adult learners too.
Citizens also have better access to government services, such as support with taxes or organizing waste disposal. Being able to browse and apply for jobs is a big advantage for people previously excluded from the job market who can now find work and more actively participate in Fort Worth's bustling economy. This is not just good for residents; it also makes Fort Worth more attractive to businesses and is predicted to reduce unemployment.
"Access to the internet provides a sense of connectiveness, and our community has that today," Leon Reed, Lake Como Neighborhood Association second vice president explains. "What I'm really proud of is the benefits the children of our community will receive as they will have a real opportunity to advance their education by continuing to learn at home. And I'm also excited about the adults having the opportunity to go online and search and apply for jobs. I'm so proud of the vision of Fort Worth to provide all its citizens the opportunity to enjoy what the world has to offer."
Fort Worth is a trailblazing city with a reputation for innovation. As it leads the way in digital inclusion, it's also establishing a blueprint to connect other underserved communities across Texas and the United States—and that's certainly a project to be proud of.
*2019 Broadband Deployment Report, Federal Communications Commission, 2019.
**59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child may face digital obstacles in schoolwork, Pew Research Center, April 2020.