A plan to close the Wi-Fi gap moves forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief Northern Kentucky’s weaknesses in broadband access.

As school districts try to keep students safe by having them learn at home – at least part of the week – gaps in internet connectivity have become obvious.

The Boone County Public Library is moving ahead on an admittedly complicated plan to get Wi-Fi to households without internet connections.

Before school started in September, the library’s director, Carrie Herrmann, tasked a working group to focus on digital inclusion in Boone County.

“We know that approximately 10% of students in Boone County do not have internet access,” Herrmann said. “In conversations with Boone County Schools they are seeing the most gaps in the Florence area.”

This makes it difficult for students to complete their NTI work, or Non-Traditional Instruction, offered via online access.

“So our idea is to expand the library’s network and create a wide area mesh network,” Herrmann said.

Practically speaking, a Wi-Fi bridge antenna would be placed on the roof or on a pole at the Florence Branch Library, the project’s pilot site. Another would be placed at a partner location, extending the library’s network outward and involving a “daisy chain” of Wi-Fi access.

The library is spending $16,000 on equipment and to test the network out of Florence. The pilot could reach 200 households.

“The need is now,” Herrmann said, however she hopes the library can be reimbursed up to 60% through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. E-rate helps schools and libraries get affordable broadband.

Looking for a long-term fix, Boone County has decided to direct funding for waterline and broadband access in western Boone County. And it will work with Campbell and Kenton on finding regional solutions.

It is estimated that about 58,700 Northern Kentucky addresses do not currently meet the FCC definition for high-speed broadband. Population of the three counties tops 400,000.

“Broadband has become an essential service just like water, sewer and roads because of what we’re facing with the pandemic,” Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore said in his “State of the County” speech. “Nontraditional education that the school system is doing with hybrid or all-virtual, people working at home, telemedicine, e-visits, all of this requires quality communication and broadband,” he said.

The Regional Broadband Expansion Project, a collaboration between Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, has put out a request for qualifications. They want a partner to assess the current availability of broadband services within each county and then design and build a network within the unserved and underserved areas.
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