Relationships Mesh to Help Bridge the Digital Divide

How CMU and Meta Mesh Are Connecting to Provide WiFi to Underserved Communities in Western Pennsylvania

What happened when Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) invited public school educators to gather on Zoom meetings to share their COVID-19 struggles and frustrations? Magic. Magic happened.

Relationships were forged, resources were connected, and grant funding was reallocated, allowing Meta Mesh to provide mesh network WiFi to underserved students.

Among other inequities, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the existing problem of the digital divide into sharper focus. It turns out that this uneven distribution of access to digital devices and connections is a problem that Ashley Williams Patton and Maggie Hannan of CMU and Adam Longwell of Meta Mesh were poised to address locally.

Their two organizations just hadn’t connected yet.

“CMU is known for being really good at solving hard problems. So, we thought, ‘We should maybe try and solve this one.’” – Maggie Hannan

CMU Provides Forum for Educators

When the pandemic forced schools to abruptly close their doors and placed teachers and students in a remote learning environment, they faced a lot of challenges. Education leaders at CMU–including Ashley, director of the university’s Computer Science Pathway Program, and Maggie, who leads K-12 work for CMU’s Simon Initiative–wanted to help school districts but didn’t know how. So, they thought they’d ask.

A cross-disciplinary team from the Simon Initiative, and the School of Computer Science, along with the CREATE Lab and the Entertainment Technology Center, came together to offer Zoom office hours for educators. Taking place twice a week, the online video calls provide a space for educators to share frustrations, solve problems, and discuss what’s working and what’s not.

Making Connections

Getting students digitally connected to access educational content was one of school districts’ biggest challenges in the shift to remote learning. Distributing devices to homes that lacked them was half the battle. But the other half of the battle was even more logistically challenging–ensuring families had the internet capabilities to connect those devices to the internet.

When Kris Hupp of Cornell School District shared his districts’ challenges with WiFi access during CMU’s Zoom office hours, Ashley realized she was connected to someone who could possibly help. She reached out to her former college classmate Colin Dean, who serves on the board of Meta Mesh, a South Side based nonprofit that creates community wireless networks and provides an alternative to expensive WiFi. Colin confirmed that Meta Mesh could indeed help the students at Cornell get connected and introduced her to Adam Longwell, the organization’s founder and executive director.

“CMU is known for technology and solving technical problems. But in this case, it’s been Meta Mesh’s tech. They’ve made this possible. And there are very few prominent mesh network organizations in the nation, so we really want to give credit to them for being national leaders on this topic.” – Ashley Williams Patton

The mission at Meta Mesh is to provide secure, encrypted connections and to effectively bridge the digital divide in a permanent way. Mesh networks connect users through strategically placed “nodes” that bounce signals to one another, relying on but a few, wired access points. Their limited reliance on wired connections means they are “more wireless” than standard wireless networks. In fact, they’re capable of covering outdoor and other public spaces (e.g., a park) where no wired connections are available. With enough nodes, entire cities could have access to inexpensive or free connections, and the equipment required to build one is highly affordable.

Relationships Create the Win-Win-Win

CMU not only stepped in to make the initial connection between Cornell and Meta Mesh, they provided critical funding to transform this potential solution into an actionable idea.

Ashley’s program at CMU secured permission to reallocate a portion of their funding from the Hopper-Dean Foundation–normally used to support their free, summer technology camps for youth, now canceled due to coronavirus–to create mesh networks for students lacking connectivity.  Likewise, this support offered a critical boost to Meta Mesh, which was at risk of closing its doors after the initial economic impact of social distancing took hold. Now, the organization is able to leverage its technology to help school districts and remain on solid financial footing.

Personal connections also helped Cornell design a mesh network while protecting their families’ privacy. Kris Hupp connected with the Coraopolis mayor Shawn Reed, who worked with local establishments to allow Meta Mesh to tap into their hardwired connections. That way, district households in need would be covered by the mesh network, but their personal details would remain anonymous.

At this writing, Meta Mesh is building a network to cover all Cornell students in need. Once complete, this addition will ensure all of Cornell’s roughly 675 students have access to their online instruction!

What’s Next?

“This is really something that has to be co-created, equally and in partnership with community members, families, school districts, and the resources that CMU and Meta Mesh can bring to bear.” – Ashley Williams Patton

The small size of Cornell’s student population made it the perfect site to pilot the joint CMU-Meta Mesh initiative, but the team isn’t stopping there. They’re in the process of creating needs maps for the Homewood and New Kensington-Arnold school districts, as both could potentially benefit from a mesh network.

Both Maggie and Ashley emphasized that relationships have been the key to solving this educational and technological problem. Maggie researches complex problems that require inter-organizational collaboration, which is known to be incredibly difficult, in part, because of the way organizations are structured. They pointed out that they were able to get the project off the ground as quickly as they did because of existing relationships. Inter-organizational work of this nature requires a lot of trust, vulnerability, and transparency, which takes time to create and nurture. At the same time, Maggie had encouraging words about collaboration in newer relationships, noting that it’s entirely possible to forge these attributes while working together on a project, even when the people involved don’t yet know each other well.

“It’s hard for everybody. It’s hard for CMU. It’s hard for schools. And so, we’ve been really grateful to have some amazing colleagues and organizations that have just moved heaven and earth to mobilize around this work over the last weeks. It’s been kind of required to make this happen, and we’re so grateful for it. But it’s still monumental and overwhelming and scary that there’s this inequity that not all kids can get online.” – Maggie Hannan

What You Can Do

There are several ways individuals and organizations can assist CMU, Meta Mesh, and the school districts they’re serving.

You can donate directly to Meta Mesh or explore their volunteer opportunities (with fun names like “Brain Trust”!). If you’re an education professional who’s interested in joining CMU’s Zoom office hours, click here to reach them about joining their sessions. They would love to hear from anyone with students who would benefit from a mesh network. (Keep in mind that it does not have to be an entire school district.)

Finally, reach out. Reach out to your existing network and share ideas. Reach out to your local, state, and national government officials and advocate for education. Officials need to know that we need more attention, more funding, and more help navigating the complexities of educational policies and problems.