How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with Baltimore Safe Haven and Project Waves)

This is the third part of a series. Go to Part 1 or Part 2.

Maryland’s official count of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 149 on Friday morning. That’s up from 57 on Tuesday. Baltimore City’s total jumped from one to 11 in that time. The state’s first coronavirus death happened in Prince George’s County on Wednesday, and multiple children in Maryland have been infected.

Governor Hogan has now reduced the legal limit on gatherings to 10 people, and has ordered all enclosed shopping spaces to close, except for essential services such as grocery stores, pharmacies and banks.

Police call box 600The Baltimore Sun has live coronavirus updates here. City Council President Brandon Scott has assembled a list of COVID-19 resources. Extinction Rebellion Baltimore, a climate activist group, is hosting a “virtual grief circle” on Saturday evening for residents to share their feelings and support each other during the crisis. And for anyone who wants to volunteer to help their vulnerable neighbors, or ask for support, you can do so on the Baltimore Mutual Aid spreadsheet or at individual neighborhood support groups.

As always, please send me any community resources I can add to these stories.

Earlier this week I spoke with Mally Hatcher of Baltimore Safe Haven and Adam Bouhmad of Project Waves, again asking, How do we build community when we can’t be near each other? Here’s what they said…

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A “Culture of Openness”: Adam Bouhmad of Project Waves on Expanding Internet Access in Baltimore

Access to the internet is a human right. So says the United Nations, which in 2016 passed a resolution condemning governments’ disruption of internet access as a human rights violation.

But in Baltimore, many people lack affordable, reliable options to connect to the internet.  The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 28% of Baltimore households did not have a broadband internet subscription between 2014 and 2018. That’s 66,000 homes. And trends suggest that African-American and Latinx households are among the most impacted.

Adam Bouhmad created Project Waves to empower Baltimore residents to erase that disparity.

“That’s why I have bags under my eyes,” he told me. He used to spend night after night at The Bun Shop in Mt. Vernon researching efforts to bridge the digital divide around the world. He’d stay until the shop closed at 3 a.m. and still go to his full-time tech job in the morning.

Last year he got a chance to put his plan into action, beginning in Sharp-Leadenhall.

It started with community outreach. He spent several months building a relationship with the neighborhood association. “I think it’s important to be a continued face that folks recognize,” he said. When the time was right, he distributed 300 flyers for his project around the community. From that he got 15 households that signed up to be considered for a low-cost, high-speed internet setup

The connection itself comes from an anchor institution: a place in the community that people trust and that agrees to share its internet access. In Sharp-Leadenhall’s case, that’s the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, where Adam used to work, in nearby Federal Hill.

Waves antennae relay

From the roof of the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, an antenna (left) sends a signal to Key Tech’s roof deck, where another antenna (right) sends it to homes in nearby Sharp-Leadenhall.

It’s easy enough to climb up onto the roof of the anchor institution and set up an antenna, which costs less than $150 and sends a signal up to 15 miles. But it gets tricky if there isn’t a clear line of sight to the homes being served. That was the case here. To get the signal where it needed to go, Adam needed a relay on top of some other building. So he went to Key Tech a half-block away and asked the bosses if he could set up a pair of antennas on their roof deck. They said yes.

The last step is setting up a receiver on the exterior of the end user’s home and wiring it to a router inside. In exchange for this setup, Waves asks for a suggested monthly donation of $10 from each subscriber.

That’s how two homes in Sharp-Leadenhall are now getting affordable internet access from the Digital Harbor Foundation anchor site. Adam said the speed for each connection is between 40 and 50 Mbps, about twice as fast as necessary to stream ultra-high-definition video.

As I said, there were 15 signups for high-speed access in the neighborhood. So this project isn’t finished.

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