Bringing low-cost internet to the high rise

When Nancy Przymus heard that the Logan Park neighborhood was “woefully behind the curve” in its number of residents connected to the Internet, she was surprised.

Przymus, Logan Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) executive coordinator, said that Otto Doll and Elise Ebhardt, of Minneapolis’ Information Technology Department, had presented the information at a public meeting last July at the Northeast Library.

“I thought, ‘What doesn’t fit here?’ I was pretty sure that most people in Logan Park were doing fine, as far as being connected,” Przymus said. “Then it occurred to me that the senior high rise in the neighborhood was probably skewing the numbers.” (The senior high rise is known as the Holland High Rise, 1717 Washington St. NE, which lies in the Logan Park neighborhood.)

Przymus met with Ebhardt, Volunteers of American (VOA) social worker Rhonda Peterson, and Holland High Rise property manager Mary Ostroum, to discuss providing Internet service to high-rise residents. “The building is so dense, with concrete slabs, that they can’t get Wi-Fi from the city. They need a cable company to install it in their apartment, and pay much more than I do for USI wireless at the city’s discount, which is about $10 a month.”

The high rise residents are mostly older, low-income people, many of whom have disabilities, Przymus added. “I didn’t think that was fair.”

The Holland High Rise has 17 floors and 182 apartments. Mary Boler, MPHA Managing Director of Low Income Public Housing, said that 67 percent of the residents are over 62, 99 percent are 50 or over, and 72 percent are disabled.

Peterson, the VOA social worker, said that residents need the Internet to access their bank, social security, and Medicare information. “All of that is tied into the Internet nowadays. I know that some residents have had to go outside the building, to the library or someone’s house, because they don’t have the Internet in their apartment. Some people here are still working; a lot of job applications must now be filled out on line.”

Last December, the city approved LPNA and VOA’s request to provide free Internet access in the high-rise’s community room. The city offers free wireless Internet accounts to non-profit organizations that provide free computer access to the public. According to a December 13, 2012, Request for City Council Committee Action letter, 100 accounts are available through Minneapolis’ contract with U.S. Internet Wireless.

Przymus said that LPNA will provide six to eight laptops, which most likely will be used, refurbished ones, and will pay for them with its Neighborhood Engagement money. They might also pay for “boosters” every three to four floors, so that anybody anywhere in the building whose laptop has Wi-Fi connections can get free Wi-Fi. LPNA has found a computer tutor through the Takoda Institute who will teach high-rise residents how to use the Internet. The tutor will work for free, as part of his course work.

“I think this should be a model for all the high rises,” Przymus said. "These residents need to be connected like the rest of us.”

She added that the project has had to work through some hurdles. “When the site survey is done, we need a contract with the high rise downtown office in order to let non- residents [such as the tutor] into the building, and also to let the building be altered. These are federally owned buildings. You need permission to do things to them.”

“One of the reasons we want to do it at 1717 is that those buildings get isolated from the community. There are strict rules about who can come and go. It’s done in the name of security, but it also cuts off people from the rest of the neighborhood. It took me a couple of months to find out who was serving the building. It took me a year and a half to get our newsletters delivered there. As a community coordinator, I don’t usually have that much trouble reaching people,” Przymus said.

The Wi-Fi project, she added, has “really been a lot of work. We’ve been working on this for six months. We still need a printer, an LCD projector for trainings, Office software, and an audio visual screen.” They hope to purchase all the equipment by mid-April, and start the training in June.

Peterson said that VOA has a contract with Hennepin County and an agreement with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, to provide social services for 41 of the city’s high rises. She has worked at the Holland High Rise for 25 years. “I was called in to attend those meetings because I work with the residents.” The neighborhood is familiar with the building, she said, because it is a voting site and has a community room open to the public. “It will be a good way to tie the community together. High rises tend to be separate communities within a community. I hope to help people find social service resources.

“I think this project is fantastic,” Peterson added. “Some residents have been asking me every week how it’s going. More and more people will be able to use the Internet. People will be able to use e-mail, shop on line, and use social media sites to stay in touch with their family members, locally or internationally. I hope it opens up a whole new avenue for them to explore the world.”

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    Gail Olson's picture
    Gail Olson