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Project to Bring Wi-Fi to a Park Near You

New Technology Allows Bandwidth Sharing to Bridge Digital Divide

By Maryland Today Staff

Animation of people in a park connecting to WiFi

A UMD project funded by the National Science Foundation aims to bring free Wi-Fi to public parks while creating technology that could bridge the digital divide and provide internet access to individuals and communities that now struggle to get online.

Illustration by Shutterstock

No one would think twice about finding a water fountain in a public park, and a if a University of Maryland research team has its way, free-flowing Wi-Fi could soon complement Frisbee games and picnics as another everyday amenity in urban green spaces.

Nirupam Roy, an assistant professor of computer science and expert in wireless networking and mobile computing, is leading a project funded by a $150,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) award to expand Wi-Fi infrastructure in area parks. The goal is to develop a new wireless architecture that would expand access to Wi-Fi in neighborhoods with low coverage as well as help keep communication lines open during disasters.

The need for new approaches to ensure internet access and bridge society’s “digital divide” became clear to Roy last year when instruction shifted online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a real eye-opener when we realized many students didn’t have stable Wi-Fi connections at home and were having to rely on public networking infrastructure” that was in short supply during lockdown, even leading some students to come to the then-mostly closed campus to sit outside buildings to get online, he said.

The one-year project, funded by NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities program, will be tested in several recreational areas in Prince George’s County, with hopes of expanding to all recreational areas administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

As a first step, the research team is will outfit Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro with Wi-Fi. Simply adding Wi-Fi to pavilions or other areas of the park isn’t the novel aspect, however; the Build Resilience through the Internet and Digital Greenspace Exposure (BRIDGE) team plans to use off-the-shelf hardware with new algorithms to develop a system that will “borrow” available Wi-Fi bandwidth from willing donors up to a few miles away and distribute it through hotspots in the park.

“A big aspect of this project is that we are looking to engage people in the community … the users are going to help design this infrastructure so it is actually useful to them, and the users will help maintain it,” he said.

Ultimately, the technology could be used to provide equitable access to Wi-Fi in many more places than just parks, Roy said. People who have for years had to scrabble to get online at libraries and fast-food restaurants could now use the internet at home. And, he said, Wi-Fi-equipped green spaces could serve as an important informational and safety tool during disasters. Green spaces are typically habitable when natural disasters occur, and when they have Wi-Fi, people could use the internet to follow the news, receive support via social media, and reunite with family members.

Roy’s team includes Jennifer Roberts, an associate professor of kinesiology; Elizabeth Bonsignore, an assistant research scientist in the College of Information Studies; Naomi Sachs, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; Byoung-Suk Kweon, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; Tara Burke, program manager of the Smart Cities Initiative at UMD's National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education (NCSG); Kim Fisher, program director of the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability at NCSG; and Lauren Belle, a sustainability specialist at M-NCPPC.

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