Cassiano Homes has 12 solar light poles which would be used to power the Wi-Fi mesh network.
Cassiano Homes has 12 solar light poles which would be used to power the Wi-Fi mesh network. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

More than 750 residents in a 65-year-old low-income housing complex on San Antonio’s Westside could get free Wi-Fi if the San Antonio Housing Authority wins a national grant challenge.

The Housing Authority is a finalist for the Mozilla Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society Challenges, which will dole out a total of $2 million in funding for wireless innovations that can either connect communities that lack reliable internet access or provide access after natural disasters.

The organization on Tuesday presented its work to the City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee.

The Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making the internet open and accessible to all, in February awarded the Housing Authority a $10,000 honorable mention grant to test its proposed solar-powered wireless mesh network, which would provide equal distribution of internet access throughout the 499-unit community.

Adrian Lopez, director of community development initiatives for the Housing Authority, said his organization’s digital inclusion projects aim to provide property residents with an equal playing field when it comes to education and workforce preparedness.

“We obviously serve a very large youth population, so things like high school degrees, college access, and other digital skills training are extremely important because we’re trying to prepare that population for the workforce,” Lopez said.

A mesh Wi-Fi network can provide equal internet distribution throughout a coverage area by hooking up multiple devices that communicate with one another and don’t rely on a single internet source, such as a router.

The Cassiano Homes Apartments have 12 solar light poles which would be used to power the Wi-Fi mesh network.

In 2013, the Housing Authority embarked on a mission to tackle the digital divide. That year it launched an effort to build community rooms at each of its more than 70 public housing properties. The rooms include desktop computers for community-wide use and Wi-Fi access.

Housing Authority officials found many residents were bringing devices such as smartphones outside the community room to use the internet, which prompted them to consider developing a mesh network. Using solar energy to power it would make the project energy-efficient, said Jo Ana Alvarado, director of information technology at the Housing Authority.

“What we wanted to do was marry mesh technology … with solar energy,” Alvarado said. “The [Mozilla] challenge asked for us to be able to connect the unconnected – where there is not fiber laid out; where there may not be plans for fiber to be trenched anytime soon; where maybe AT&T, Spectrum, and other [internet service providers] are not there.”

Prize money will range from $50,000 for fourth place to $400,000 for first place.

The Housing Authority was among 20 winners in the first stage, during which applicants submitted designs for their projects.

Cassiano Homes is a 65-year-old West San Antonio low-income housing complex.
Cassiano Homes is a 65-year-old low-income housing complex on San Antonio’s Westside. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mozilla is accepting prototypes for Stage 2 of its wireless challenge through June 22. Winners will be announced in or around August, according to its website.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who chairs the Innovation and Technology Committee, said bridging the digital divide will help build better communities.

“You can’t be a well-informed, participatory citizen if you don’t have access to almost what is natural resource these days which is the internet,” Pelaez said. “One of the things keeping me up at night is there may be a kid out there who may be the next [Rackspace founder and Innovation and Technology Committee member] Dirk Elmendorf, and he’s living in one of these low-income facilities without any access to the internet. We just may be missing a great opportunity by not providing him or her that access.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.