In May 2008, the WiFi101 network went live in East Palo Alto to bridge the "digital divide" separating residents from the benefits of Internet access. Now, that free wireless network, which covers East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, will shut down, according to nonprofit Computers for Everyone.
Computers for Everyone (CFE) board member Stu Jeffery said the network shutdown is due to a variety of reasons, including aged equipment and a decline in usership, but the driving reason is that tech company Google can no longer provide backhaul for the network.
The WiFi101 network has been part of Google's free Wi-Fi network in Mountain View, which is in the process of being decommissioned and replaced with a more robust network in downtown Mountain View, said Meghan Casserly, Google's corporate communications manager.
"Google was providing us a 'tap' into the service they were providing to Mountain View, but since they are shutting that network down, the 'tap' they were providing is going away," Jeffery said.
Casserly said the company offered to help WiFi101 with "additional support" after the shut-off, but Jeffery said the offer wasn't sufficient.
Google offered to "help us with Comcast, but even if that worked out we would have a significant expense ... to move and reconfigure the equipment that we currently have at Google," Jeffery said.
"We explored other approaches, all of which would cost us money, but since there is no revenue from the Wi-Fi network, we made the hard decision to shut it down. We are in the position to reactivate were a new white knight to emerge," he said.
And because people have more low-cost options for connecting to the World Wide Web now, WiFi101 data has shown a major drop-off in usage, according to a CFE press release. At the height of usage, about 7,750 residents used the WiFi101 network each month, but only 2,500 users accessed the network last month.
While the organization recognizes the value of the free service, sustaining it is not financially possible, the press release reads.
"The equipment used by the network is quite old and is no longer reliable. A major overhaul of the network would be necessary to keep it running. CFE does not currently have the funding to support this overhaul," Jeffery said.
WiFi101 was created in 2004 by Community Wireless and provided residents with free Internet connection for eight years before Computers for Everyone took over in 2012. The East Palo Alto nonprofit provides low-cost equipment and technical support to residents and organizations to enable them to connect to WiFi101.
"Over the years, WiFi101 has played a pivotal role as an East Palo Alto Digital Village signature project and, in the process, made immeasurable contributions to ongoing efforts to build technology infrastructure in EPA and the neighboring community of eastern Menlo Park/Belle Haven," CFE board member Dr. Faye McNair-Knox said in the press release.
The network, which was funded by a three-year grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund, was operated by a consortium of nonprofits, including Ravenswood City School District; One East Palo Alto, a community-betterment group; and JobTrain, a nonprofit educational and training institution; among others.
Currently, the WiFi101 network is still up, Jeffery said, but since Google is in the process of disassembling the Mountain View network, WiFi101 could shut down at any time.