Jelene Crehan, Director of Network Engineering and Infrastructure at the University of Illinois Chicago, worked to extend internet access to the nearby neighborhoods.

Sep 01 2023

How University Wi-Fi Networks Better Digital Equity in Surrounding Communities

Extending Wi-Fi reach to neighboring communities helps universities close the digital divide.

When five undergraduate engineering students from the University of Illinois Chicago began a project to narrow the digital divide in their community, they focused their efforts on the nearby neighborhood of Pilsen. Like many other areas on the south and west sides of Chicago, this vibrant, majority-Latino community significantly lags behind the rest of the city when it comes to high-speed internet access.

The students were working with Break Through Tech Chicago, which seeks to increase gender diversity in the IT field. Partnering with engineers from Cisco, they had just three weeks to complete the in-depth project.

“I was actually curious to see what they could do in such a short amount of time,” says Jelene Crehan, director of network engineering and infrastructure at UIC.

To get the background they needed, Crehan served as the technical consultant on the project, providing the students with details of the school’s existing network infrastructure and data centers. The students also worked with the Cisco engineers to choose equipment including Meraki routers, switches and cloud management products. They went through three iterations of their design until they and their Cisco colleagues were satisfied with the results. They then presented their plan to UIC executives.

“They did an amazing job,” says Crehan. “There was so much thought, detail and engineering involved in creating the solutions.”

UIC is just one of many schools across the U.S. leveraging their expertise and resources to partner with their communities to increase internet access in households that have experienced barriers in the past.

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Those partnerships are a critical solution in a nation where 1 in 5 U.S. households does not have internet access, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Along with federal and state governments, higher education institutions are stepping up to create a positive impact on their communities.

“Our economy and society are undergoing fundamental shifts that make universal access to reliable, affordable broadband essential,” says Kathryn de Wit, project director for the broadband access initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Universities have high-quality research capabilities and trustworthy reputations within local communities that offer tremendous value toward a state’s broadband planning initiatives.”

LEARN MORE: How to configure and test a new wireless network deployment on campus.

The University of Illinois Chicago Is Better Connecting Communities

The project at UIC was directly in sync with the university’s commitment to community outreach.

“What I found interesting about the students’ proposal was that their solution helped bridge the digital divide between the university and the community, but it wasn’t just about education,” Crehan says. “It was about bridging the divide with healthcare resources, after-school activities and small businesses in the Pilsen area. It was still during COVID, and a lot of places were struggling.”

To come up with their wireless design, the students asked questions about where the data centers were geographically located and the wireless already in place. Then, they worked with the Cisco technical team to come up with a plan to provide point-to-multipoint and point-to-point Wi-Fi mesh solutions to extend the school’s backbone wireless capabilities, leveraging the location of specific buildings in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“They had to choose buildings that were centrally located to serve the community at large, so they chose a youth center, a medical center, a high school and a bank,” explains Crehan.

Today, Crehan and her team are upgrading the campus wireless to Wi-Fi 6. Executing the students’ plan for Pilsen is part of the rollout.

“I’m sure we will have to refresh the equipment models and some of the budget numbers that the students initially presented, but their plan is the foundation,” Crehan says. “Talking to the community and building relationships are the next steps, but we are energized to implement this project. It feels awesome to be part of that bigger picture.”

Kathryn de Wit
Universities have high-quality research capabilities and trustworthy reputations within local communities that offer tremendous value toward a state’s broadband planning initiatives.”

Kathryn de Wit Project Director, Pew Charitable Trusts

Northern Michigan University Chooses Quality Rural Connection

Instead of buildings and busy streets, the team at Northern Michigan University had some very different issues to overcome when providing wireless access to its surrounding communities.

Located in the city of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, NMU began its first outreach into the community by providing internet access to the entire county in 2002.

“At the time, two-thirds of our students lived off campus, and many are pretty rural. Marquette is the largest city in the area with 22,000 residents. We asked ourselves, how can we help our students off campus with better internet access?” says Gavin Leach, vice president for finance and administration at NMU.

But the school wanted to extend its reach, realizing there was much more need. According to the most recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 17 percent of people in rural areas and 21 percent in tribal lands lack adequate internet coverage.

In 2008, the university received FCC-licensed EBS spectrum to broadcast wireless broadband throughout Marquette County, which covered about seven local communities where the majority of off-campus student lived. The program has expanded its capacity ever since. Today the system serves more than 16,000 families (including NMU faculty and students) in 117 communities, which includes six tribal communities.

DIVE DEEPER: Why higher education device programs need holistic, intentional strategy.

One of the most challenging installations provides internet access to a school was near the beginning of the project in Big Bay, Mich., about 30 miles north of Marquette.

“They couldn’t get broadband, and there was no good fiber running that direction,” says Leach. “But there was a lighthouse in Lake Superior on a tiny island, about 10 miles out from the coast that was owned by a former university board member. We used a microwave signal to reach the lighthouse and then redirected the signal into Big Bay. We power the system with wind and solar power and propane in winter. It creates some challenges — the windmills and solar panels take a beating — but it works.”

The network is self-sustaining. Families with children in school or college pay $20 a month for high-speed service and community members pay $35 a month — rates well below commercial offerings. Federal money will help fund future upgrades.

To keep things running, NMU works with many private companies, including snowplowing services and electricians, along with a strong NMU IT staff.

“It’s been pretty exciting,” Leach says of the process. “We hope to continue to grow to really serve the people of the area.”


The percentage of families making under $25,000 annual who say internet access is too expensive

Source:, “Switched Off: Why Are One in Five U.S. Households Not Online?” Oct. 5, 2022

University of Arizona Works to Better Underserved Communities

At the University of Arizona, planning and partnerships have been key for the soon-to-launch Project CAN, or Connect Arizona Now: Digital Inclusion for Underserved Students and Communities of Southern Arizona.

Designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, UArizona qualified for more than $3 million over two years from the NTIA. In addition to providing broadband to diverse population in southern Arizona, Project CAN aims to work with community organizations to provide digital literacy and workforce skills training.

“Classes for our students and for the community, all of it rides on the back of broadband,” says Bryan Carter, director for the center for digital humanities at UArizona and project lead.

A program pilot already is underway in Tucson in partnership with Cox Communications and the Dunbar Pavilion, an African American cultural center.

“The Dunbar Pavilion is an anchor for minority communities in Tucson,” Carter says. “Together, we’re planning programming to support a business development center and a historical community archive that will be available to the public. We’ll evaluate the programs there and then spread out to other community partners.”

EXPLORE: How virtual desktops close higher education cybersecurity gaps.

In addition to the community partnerships, UArizona is upgrading the internet backbone for its microcampuses across the region in rural areas and on Native American reservations.

Carter is looking forward to what students will be able to do with the connectivity boost.

“We’ll be able to make more complex STEM courses available to students anywhere in the system,” he says. “Professors will be able to deliver course material like 3D models, virtual environments, holograms and the most advanced digital tools.”

Closing the digital divide is a major undertaking, but one that is vital to the UArizona and surrounding community.

“We’re a public institution, a land-grant institution; it’s part of our mission,” Carter says.

Photography by Matthew Gilson

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