San Francisco and the Bay Area at large suffer from some of the worst economic inequality in the US. The City by the Bay boasts more billionaires per capita than anywhere on Earth; at the same time its surging unhoused population and exodus of working- and middle-class families, many of them people of color, are nothing to brag about.

This inequality permeates all aspects of San Francisco life, from employment and housing to education and access to fast, reliable internet access. In fact, some 100,000 San Franciscans — or more than 1 out of every 9 residents — suffer from inadequate internet access, exacerbating existing inequities. Sure, there are great options when it comes to expensive internet service from corporations like Comcast and AT&T, but what kind of “choices” are these if you simply cannot afford them?

This dilemma, paired with a genuine desire to shrink the digital divide, led the City of San Francisco to partner with local internet service provider Monkeybrains to deliver high quality, high-speed internet to two public housing communities. Residents of the 440-unit Hunters Point East and West (HPEW) apartments in Hunters Point are being served with 100 Mbps connectivity, while Robert B. Pitts apartments, a 203-unit complex in the rapidly gentrifying Western Addition, is getting 1 Gbps connectivity.

The city government used the opportunity of 2016 renovations at HPEW to upgrade its internet connectivity. Comcast had previously submitted a bid for the project under which each of the complex’s buildings would get a single Wi-Fi access point, for a monthly cost of $200. This would mean the 27-building community would incur annual internet bills of nearly $65,000.

Enter Monkeybrains, which knew it could offer a far better deal for complex residents and the city government. According to Broadband Communities:

Monkeybrains offered free installation of wireless access points as well as wired access to each individual unit. SFHDC would pay $10 per month per unit to Monkeybrains for the first two years, but there would be no cost to residents. With 213 units at $10 per month, the total cost to SFHDC runs just under $26,000 per year – half what Comcast bid for an inferior option. After that, Monkeybrains can donate the bandwidth, extend the agreement with SFHDC or offer a low-priced service directly to residents. Monkeybrains takes help-desk calls from HPEW residents just as it does for other customers.

Mason Carroll and Preston Rhea, lead engineers at Monkeybrains, stressed that the partnership didn’t just want to deliver high quality internet to HPEW and Robert B. Pitts residents; it would offer them the same level of product and service that all of the company’s customers had come to expect over its 20 years in business. Ethics In Tech salutes its hometown leadership and Monkeybrains for this promising partnership.How can you start a program like this in your city? According to Broadband Communities, you should:

  • Find a local champion who either understands this technology or is excited to dive into it.
  • Find good partners with the right incentives. Some ISPs will be enthusiastic about projects like these, and others (from small to large) may pass. Understand what motivates your potential partner.
  • Research funding options. Plenty of states have created programs to subsidize internet access, but few of these programs are available for urban residents. Consider reaching out to foundations to explain that smart, one-time expenditures can create ongoing, self-sustaining, high-quality internet access. 
    The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) can offer help for those who need additional information.

Private companies can help municipalities harness their broadband assets to better serve communities and bridge the digital divide. Cities like San Francisco have the experience and expertise to build broadband networks, while companies like Monkeybrains are experts at providing internet access on those networks and serving customers. Partnerships like the one between San Francisco and Monkeybrains are boldly working toward a more digitally equitable future.

(Photo credit: Francesco Lodolo/Flickr Creative Commons)


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