Mayoral allies unveil free Wi-Fi plan

A handful of aldermen led by Gilbert Villegas (36th) held a news conference Tuesday to showcase “wireless, trenchless, solar-powered routers” installed on Chicago Park District and CPS buildings.

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Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) talk after a news conference Tuesday about a free Wi-Fi initiative at Peter A. Reinberg Elementary Tuesday morning, July 28, 2020.

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) talk after a news conference Tuesday about a free Wi-Fi initiative at Peter A. Reinberg Elementary.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a $50 million plan to provide free high-speed internet service to 100,000 Chicago Public School students, courtesy of Illinois’ richest man and some of Chicago’s biggest philanthropies.

But the four-year time frame is too long to wait for some of the mayor’s closest City Council allies. They’re taking matters into their own hands to facilitate the CPS shift to a mix of remote and in-classroom learning this fall.

Led by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, they held a news conference Tuesday at Reinberg Elementary School in Portage Park to showcase “wireless, trenchless, solar-powered routers” installed on Chicago Park District and CPS buildings. The 3-by-3-foot routers the size of a window provide “temporary Wi-Fi” with no trenching or cable installation required.

Villegas was joined by Ald. Michael Scott Jr., Lightfoot’s Education Committee chairman, and by mayoral ally Gregory Mitchell (7th). All three, as well as Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), have similar devices being installed in their wards donated for the next six months by Ignite Cities, Mesh++ and Verizon.

Villegas pointed to the difficult transition to remote learning in Chicago at a time when 100,000 students still lack reliable high-speed internet access.

“Given that so many communities are not connected, it was a disaster. We need to do a better job. I know the city is working to get `Chicago Connected’ up and running. But this here is just a simple tool that gives some immediate opportunities to some communities,” Villegas said. 

“Sometimes, government gets in the way. … We need to let the technology firms do what they do best. What we need to tell them is, ‘We have an issue. How would you resolve this?’ instead of us saying, ‘We have an issue and this is how we want you to resolve this.’”

With only a few dozen solar routers being installed, the six-month pilot will barely make a dent in the digital divide.

But Scott said the $1,500 devices at newly renamed Douglass Park in his West Side ward are worth a try.

“There is no line that runs into the park or right around there. The school in the park cannot get a wireless connection. It costs an exorbitant amount of money to trench Comcast,” Scott said.

“What this does is take a signal that already exists and amplifies that signal so that folks who don’t have internet or have a weak signal have a better signal. What the mayor is doing to bridge that digital divide — this is complement to it. It’s not, ‘We use this instead of that.’ They’re all needed. Hers is gonna take longer. This is a relatively simple solution where things already exist to begin to use that so our kids have a better opportunity to learn.”

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