City, other entities team up to bring free Wi-Fi to low-income Columbia neighborhoods | Columbia

The Colony housing complex on West Beltline Boulevard.

Chris Trainor

In a year in which a global pandemic has pushed much of life online, access to the internet has seemingly become more important than ever.

Now, the City of Columbia and a number of other entities — including national radio personality and author Charlamagne tha God and Elevation Church — have come together on a project that will offer free Wi-Fi services to two large, low-income apartment complexes in mostly African American north central Columbia.

Installation of 10 solar-powered Wi-Fi networking devices began on Sept. 25 at the sprawling Colony apartment complex off West Beltline Boulevard. The devices — which weigh 25 pounds each and are mounted on lampposts throughout the complex — will provide free wireless internet access to several hundred families in the Colony and the neighboring North Pointe Estates (commonly referred to as Bethel Bishop.) The neighborhoods are about three miles from downtown Columbia.

The more than $250,000 project was shepherded by Sam Johnson, an advisor at Nexsen Pruet law firm and former longtime aide to Mayor Steve Benjamin. It ended up being a collaborative effort, with help from Ignite Cities (a firm that works to provide internet access in underserved areas), Gregory Electric and others. Charlamagne tha God and Elevation Church made donations to the project.

Internet access has become vital amid COVID-19, particularly for families with children who are now doing remote learning in schools. For now, students in Richland School Districts 1 and 2 are still doing all virtual learning, and have not yet set a start date for in-person classes.

“We realize that, in this day and age, with the pandemic, we have to be very focused on helping each other out,” Johnson said. “This service will be free for the folks in this community.”

The Wi-Fi devices are manufactured by tech company Mesh++, which, Johnson notes, has in the past helped establish internet access to Third World countries. They’ve shifted focus to the US during the pandemic, he says, as web access has become a necessity for many.

“This was an opportunity to hit one of the most densely populated areas where we know we have a bunch of children who, quite frankly, could use access to the internet and may not otherwise have it,” Johnson said. “We think it can help a whole lot of people.”

Broadband expansion has become a political topic, particularly this year, though much of the conversation in South Carolina has centered on making he internet available in rural areas. The Legislature passed a bill Sept. 24 that will make way for more high-speed web availability for rural residents who might not currently have access.

In the case of the project at the Colony, it’s less an issue of availability than affordability. Access to free wi-fi should be helpful to families working to make ends meet during COVID-19.

“All of our children deserve access o the world’s libraries and their families must be able to leverage the opportunities only available through 21st century technology,” Benjamin said. “Providing free wi-fi to these families is the collective work of individuals and organizations living with the values of a great city.”

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