by Greg Katz, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel and Brad Blake, Vice President, Information Technology
From our founding in 2001, Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc. (POAH) has thought of its mission as “housing plus,” with quality affordable housing as the foundation, and resident empowerment, community building, and environmental initiatives built on top. But we never imagined ourselves focusing on high-speed internet access – until COVID lockdowns came along, and fast internet morphed from a nice-to-have amenity into a must-have utility for connecting to remote jobs, classrooms, and support networks.
Because we serve lower-income households, many of our residents fell into the “digital divide,” with no internet connection or a patched-together system. In a pinch, mom’s cellphone might be used as a not-so-hot “hot-spot” for two remote jobs plus a fourth-grade math class. Other residents had a good connection but were paying too much for unneeded speed or “bundled” services, adding financial burden to low-income families. The problem became obvious quickly, partly because POAH’s Community Impact staff were already helping residents navigate pandemic-related disruptions to their work, education, income, and family life. Solving the problem turned out to be much less obvious and much less quick; but we do love a challenge and we made this one a top priority.
By addressing obstacles such as contractual constraints, funding limitations, and resource scarcity, POAH has worked to bridge the digital divide and empower its underserved residents. This article describes POAH’s journey towards rolling out affordable high-speed internet for POAH residents, highlighting the various hurdles faced and the role of the Community Impact department in assisting residents.
Challenges: Contracts, Funding, and Wiring
One of the initial challenges POAH encountered was being locked into contracts with existing internet service providers, some of which contained “bulk ban” language that ISPs argue prohibit the building owner from providing free internet to residents. These legacy contracts were a major obstacle that required granular, property-by-property review so that we could integrate our goals with our existing contractual obligations.
POAH used a variety of strategies to navigate this issue, targeting free Wi-Fi efforts to properties that were unencumbered by “bulk bans,” negotiating with ISPs to avoid signing new contracts with these restrictions, and in some cases making deals to amend old contracts to remove potentially problematic language. For one Rhode Island property, we were able to convince the existing cable and internet provider to amend the old contract to take out the “bulk ban”. We made a case based on our non-profit mission and the urgent need to connect residents, but we also offered to give up our right to future revenue under the contract. In the end the ISP did agree to remove the “bulk ban,” which enabled us to build a free Wi-Fi system without any legal risk.
Another significant challenge was a lack of dedicated funding and internal staff resources. Building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure for high-speed internet access requires substantial financial investments; a typical POAH-installed free Wi-Fi system at a 200-unit property might cost POAH $100,000 to install, and $4,000 per month to maintain and operate. And any Wi-Fi system needs technical support staff to answer resident questions and trouble-shoot problems; these services either must be outsourced (at an additional cost) or handled internally (by already-stretched staff).
POAH had a big starting advantage on this front, in the form of our Community Impact staff who are assigned to each property to work directly with residents. POAH has found that a good balanced approach is to outsource the truly technical “tech support” role but rely on Community Impact staff for the more interpersonal side of resident support and education. But even with this built-in resident support infrastructure, Wi-Fi initiatives cost real money, and it has not always been easy to find a dedicated funding source. Securing funding for such large-scale projects was a continuous struggle. We have had to explore various avenues, including public subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) as well as private grants and partnerships, to obtain the necessary resources.
The ACP does have significant capacity as a financing mechanism, providing low-cost or free high-speed internet, training opportunities, apprenticeships, and even free laptops and tablets. To guide residents through this comprehensive program, POAH relied heavily on our Community Impact staff to act as digital navigators, explaining the benefits of the ACP and aiding in the application process. But the ACP also presents its own challenges, with an arduous application process requiring multiple steps and extensive documentation. Even after approval, residents must actively use the network every month or risk disconnection.
By contrast, sign-ups and adoption have been significantly streamlined for our installations that don’t rely on ACP funding. At our property in Salem, Massachusetts (pictured here), residents can sign up in under five minutes with just their name, unit number and contact information. This streamlined process reduces the support burden on our on-site staff, allowing them to focus on other work. And the proof is in the pudding: properties where we have deployed high-speed resident wireless without ACP funding have far more users than properties where we have had to leverage ACP. POAH continues to work on funding models for its resident Wi-Fi initiatives, with a particular eye towards securing other types of long-term operation and maintenance funding.
Finally, POAH ran into physical obstacles, often relating to dispersed “garden style” property layouts, or to a lack of available wiring in existing buildings. Some properties had only aging copper “twisted pair” telephone wire available because the sole coaxial cable line was owned by the legacy cable company. Other properties were so dispersed that wiring the buildings was uneconomical; a 200-unit tower might have a $100,000 install cost, but a property with 20 small buildings of 10 units each might cost $250,000 due to the inefficient layout.
Solving this issue for existing properties has been a property-by-property grind, and sometimes there is no solution besides raising the installation budget. But for the future, POAH has adjusted its technical standards for new-construction buildings to add a CAT6 cabling to every unit, owned, and controlled by POAH.
Building on top of its core mission to provide quality affordable housing, POAH is actively working to bridge the digital divide and empower its residents. It has not been easy. Despite challenges such as legacy ISP contracts, funding and staff-resource limitations, and the physical constraints of specific sites, POAH is committed to ensuring that its underserved residents have access to reliable internet connectivity. By leveraging the ACP and supporting residents through the Community Impact department, POAH strives to equip its residents with the tools and opportunities necessary to thrive in an increasingly digital world.
Photo: Salem Heights, Salem, MA