Bay Area/ Oakland/ Community & Society
Published on April 08, 2021
Select Oakland residents gain free wi-fi through new city-sponsored programPhoto: Fam 1st Foundation

If you live in Oakland and are challenged with the rising cost of internet service, there may be a solution. 

OAKWIFI is taking steps to close the digital gap through strategic partnerships, community outreach, and by providing access to underserved communities in Oakland. 

VaShone Huff, a principal consultant at boutique consulting firm MCH Strategies, was hired by the city to do community outreach for the project. Hoodline spoke with Huff on how reaching out to the community helped drive this campaign. 

"OAKWIFI has been around for a while because it’s been used at city locations and city facilities," Huff says. "But now it’s expanding into the arteries and communities as well for broader public use. This initiative OAKWIFI, this phase of it provides free internet access to residents and businesses, and people who love Oakland and come to visit.”

Huff went on to explain, “There are 13 zones that have been identified as the most vulnerable in the City of Oakland. This means food deserts and lack of access to many things. Everything that is the most challenged in the city.” 

So, areas that have challenges like access to education, healthcare, adequate transportation, and more, will now have free wi-fi access. 

“Where the greatest need is, let's saturate them with the resources,” said Huff, of the city's philosophy. 

The process took collaboration across city entities and departments, and a funding opportunited came through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

“The City of Oakland received $36.9 million in CARES Act funding allocated from the State of California. Funds were used to provide financial and technical assistance to Oaklanders and address the city’s ongoing public health and safety impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the City of Oakland’s website.

Assistant City Administrator, LaTonda Simmons, along with Andrew Peterson, Chief Information Officer of the city's Information Technology Department, submitted a CARES Act application. 

Also, the Oakland City Council last year allocated $7.7 million to expand the OAKWIFI program dramatically. 

Peterson provided a look into how the council worked to move the project forward by passing a resolution that allowed key partners to move quickly. 

“First we need to recognize that the city council was there last year," Peterson tells Hoodline. "They made it possible really. They know that it was an important need, especially with COVID, to try to provide some level of internet access; when we start to talk about the digital divide and one of the key components of that is access.”

With that in mind, the project moved full speed ahead and all the parts moved like clockwork. 

Edelman, a global communications firm, donated $100,000 in marketing services, according to Peterson. They developed all the marketing, social media campaigns, and some of the billboards. Also, the city hired Huff to do community outreach and engagement. Putting together an asset like that, Peterson said is only helpful if people know about it. 

Peterson added that OAKWIFI launched before the beginning of the year, but since early January the network has doubled in usage each month. 

In March they had over 40,000 unique devices on the network — it's hard to know how many residents that represents because one person can log on with multiple devices, and one family can also share a single device.

Peterson thinks community outreach plays a very important role in promoting something like OAKWIFI. The Oakland A’s participated, the Warriors. and more. Also, the city's television station, KTOP did a great job doing all the editing and getting the word out.

Huff says she toured the city and saw students in cars, laundromats, or other businesses just to get access to wi-fi. With that knowledge, in order to get the word out to the communities in Oakland who lack access to information, the city also placed ads on bus shelters, and placed radio spots on KBLX, IHeart Radio, and more.  

Huff lined up heavy hitters in the community, as well, to produce public service announcements. Huff said they now have about 25 PSAs, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr featured among the first to air. The PSAs also feature the voices of students, grandparents, teachers, local business owners, and celebrity names like Dwayne Wiggins, G-Easy, and athletes Marshawn Lynch, Joshua Johnson, and Marcus Peters. 

Oakland-based Fam 1st Family Foundation took it a step further, in partnership with Peralta Colleges Foundation, by purchasing 400 computers for local students, and they partnered with OAKWIFI to distribute them. They were able to reach students (K-12) in the Oakland Unified School District as well as charter schools to help them get a computer--for free. Huff also worked with LaNiece Jones, Executive Director, Peralta Colleges Foundation and they were able to give computers to college and university students. 

"Internet access is only helpful if you have a device," Huff said.

Just who can get access to the OAKWIFI? According to the City of Oakland’s website, "94,000 residents in Oakland currently don't have access to the internet. OAKWIFI is an initiative that provides free internet access for students, seniors, job seekers, small businesses, the underserved, and unconnected.”

With that in mind, check the City of Oakland website to see if your area is covered.  If so, take steps to get connected. OAKWIKI is saving thousands of residents money and helping to affect their bottom line by making everything more accessible to Oaklanders.