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Could Wi-Fi in Louisville’s public parks help bridge the city’s digital divide?

A "public Wi-Fi" sign on a pole against a blue sky.
Divya Karthikeyan
A public Wi-Fi sign at the Alberta O. Jones Park in the California neighborhood.

Louisville Metro plans to connect all the city’s public parks to free 5G Wi-Fi by the end of summer 2025. Plans are underway with a focus on low-income areas in the city.

When working mom Taylor Ryan set down her laptop on a picnic table at the Alberta O. Jones Park on a recent afternoon, she knew she didn’t have to worry about losing sight of her five-year-old at the sandbox or getting to a Zoom meeting on time.

She multi-tasked, her eyes darting between working on a presentation for Change Today, Change Tomorrow, the nonprofit she founded and is an executive director of, and keeping tabs on her son, who pounced from the swings to the yellow slide.

“I'm getting a lot of work done, I'm being productive and he's running ragged so I can go home and the day is over. All I gotta do is feed him, bathe him and he's in bed,” she said.

A woman is seated at a picnic table with fingers resting on a laptop keyboard. She is looking toward the left of the frame at something in the distance.
Divya Karthikeyan
Taylor Ryan, founder and executive director of Change Today, Change Tomorrow, checks on her son as she works at the Alberta O. Jones Park.

Ryan said she doesn’t have high-speed broadband internet access in her home in the California neighborhood, and she usually works at home using two hotspots. That’s why she likes having the option of working out of the city’s first public park that offers free 5G public Wi-Fi, which also happens to be close to home.

The Alberta O. Jones Park opened last November. In addition to free Wi-Fi, the park also provides charging stations situated near picnic tables with USB ports and electrical outlets.

Ryan is a single parent with no access to additional child care, and her family lives outside Louisville. She said parks are “my opportunity to disconnect for him and connect for me.”

“You can take your meetings here in person, but you can also take your calls here. Being in nature, just in general outside of being a mom, you get that vitamin D, you're getting your energy, you're getting your boost, it’s not cooped up in the house all day,” she said.

The digital upgrades at Alberta O. Jones Park were funded by a private grant. Now, for the first time, the city is focused on installing free 5G Wi-Fi at the 120 public parks in Louisville, with a focus on parks near low-income areas.

A black pillar with an embedded charging station at a public park with picnic tables and benches.
Divya Karthikeyan
Charging stations are available at the Alberta O. Jones Park in the California neighborhood.

In this year’s budget, the Louisville Metro Council approved Mayor Craig Greenberg’s proposal for $250,000 in capital expenditures for Wi-Fi installation in parks. The city has also tapped into an additional $1.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act Funds in recent weeks, said Chris Seidt, the city’s executive director of Metro Technology Services. He expects this to be “enough to fund around 90 parks, depending on size and complexity of the installation.”

Boone Square in the Portland neighborhood was the second public park in the city to deploy free Wi-Fi, followed by Algonquin Park in the Algonquin neighborhood and Lannan Park in the Portland Neighborhood. The system at Watterson Lake Park is installed and was ready to be activated as of last week and Ben Washer Park will be online this month, Seidt said.

“Our plan is to have all of our Metro Parks connected by the end of the summer in 2025, pending some additional funding. We expect to have 30 to 40 parks online by this summer,” Seidt said in an email.

Seidt said he’s trying to work with Metro Parks to spread word about the Wi-Fi offerings, and asking Metro Council members to tell their constituents, too.

Pandemic highlighted digital divide

At the park, Ryan fiddled with what she called her “work-in-the-park pack” to find her son’s water bottle. She recalled how the world closed during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Working from home, virtual school, scheduling doctor’s appointments, getting a job – access to the internet became a dire need.

“It became very inequitable very quickly on who has access and who doesn't, who has a job and who doesn’t, who's advancing in the classroom and who isn't,” she said.

That inequity is a result of what the National Digital Inclusion Alliance calls a digital divide.

That refers to the gap between people who can afford the technology to access the internet and have digital literacy skills, and those who can’t. That can impact people’s ability to find jobs, access services, participate in school and more.

California is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, Ryan said.

“So your basic human rights, human needs are very limited and scarce here, so internet is a luxury. But we need to realize we are beyond the point of the internet being a luxury…because everybody needs it,” she said.

As part of the Maple Street Greenspace project, community members and organizations in the California neighborhood worked with the Parks Alliance of Louisville to survey residents on what they wanted from a new park to be constructed on vacant land in the area. They also got to choose the name of the park – now named after African American civil rights icon Alberta O. Jones.

Morgan Reining, the alliance’s communications and marketing director, said two of the amenities residents wanted were free public Wi-Fi and having charging ports.

“Wi-Fi in particular is important at Alberta Jones Park, because with a Wi-Fi desert, they don't have any access. And we saw that during the pandemic,” she said.

Reining said she’s seen unhoused people benefit as well.

“Whether that's to stay connected with loved ones, to stay connected with the community that they built, or if that's to look up what food resources are going to be available the next few days, if that's to apply to jobs. There's so many touch points as to why this is important,” she said.

More needed for digital equity

Aaron Schill, the Director of Research and Programs at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said installing public Wi-Fi in public parks is a way local governments can utilize existing city property and municipal resources to better serve residents.

But Schill, who works with local leaders and elected officials to develop solutions to improve information access, said it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“It is not a standalone solution. And it is not a replacement for encouraging internet service providers, whether they're public or private or nonprofit, to continue to build out networks and make sure that people have access to affordable, high-quality home internet,” he said.

Schill said the government’s response to the pandemic did make internet access a priority and spur innovation with the federal government’s one-time$14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided a direct subsidy to help pay for internet access for low income and other eligible households.

But the funding for the program is projected to run out in April this year if Congress does not provide additional money.

“A lot of our work now is to fight for renewing that and identifying permanent funding to help that move forward and stay as a resource,” he said.

As the sun sets on Alberta O. Jones Park, Taylor Ryan wraps up work for the day.

She said she likes working there because it helps her stay productive without distractions, and she’s also trying to be more conscious about her son’s daily screen time and giving him space to unplug.

“This is his opportunity to touch nature and my opportunity to work, and we get to, you know, kill two birds with one stone,” she said.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.