Published April 12, 2021
UB and local nonprofit Mission: Ignite have been awarded $300,000 in federal funding to expand high-speed internet access in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood.
The grant team, which includes numerous community partners, will use the award to build a wireless network to provide internet service at no cost to 150 households.
In the Fruit Belt, more than 70% of households are considered “low connectivity households” that either have no internet or depend on one connection type, such as dial-up.
“The pandemic forced a large-scale public shift to virtual education, work-from-home and telemedicine, simultaneously exposing the gaping digital divide. [Mission: Ignite] has helped to lead the effort to connect people to devices, but internet access continues to be a hurdle,” says Rep. Brian Higgins (NY-26). “We commend the project leader, the University at Buffalo, and all of the project partners for this collaborative effort to improve access to broadband for residents in Buffalo.”
The award is part of Project OVERCOME, a $2.7 million initiative run by U.S. Ignite, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Schmidt Futures, a charitable organization, aiming to expand high-speed internet access to underserved communities.
The team led by UB and Mission: Ignite — and including the Community Tech New York, The John R. Oishei Foundation, Kaleida Health, Integrated Systems, city of Buffalo, and New York State Wireless Association — will use part of the wireless spectrum known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service.
UB engineers and project co-leaders Filippo Malandra and Nick Mastronarde will serve as project managers.
“We are excited to take part in this important effort to reduce the digital divide in underserved communities,” says Malandra, assistant professor of research of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We are grateful to U.S. Ignite, the National Science Foundation and Schmidt Futures for supporting our proposal.”
Adds Mastronarde, associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: “This project would not be happening without the tireless efforts of our team members and partners.”
Mission: Ignite will be the operational owner of the network. It will train what it’s calling local “digital stewards” to provide ongoing maintenance and community support.
“We look forward to collaborating with our partners and the local Fruit Belt community in hopes of bringing technology supports as a healthy resource for education and family needs,” says Christine Carr-Barmasse, executive director of Mission:Ignite.
Sunha Kim, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, will lead a social impact study to ensure the project is inclusive and meets the needs of the community.
“It is incredibly important to reach out to members of the Fruit Belt community to reduce the digital divide and educational inequalities. The guidance they can provide will enable us to create greater and more equitable internet and network access, as well as serve as a model for future similar networks to bridge the digital and educational gap,” says Kim.
Team members from Community Tech New York include Houman Saberi, Greta Byrum and Raul Enriquez.
Additional team members from UB include Zhangyu Guan, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering; Brice Bible, vice president and chief information officer; and Steven Heist, director of network and communication services.
Reliable high-speed internet will help mitigate educational gaps in the Fruit Belt and improve access to telemedicine, the project team says. Additionally, by training stewards to maintain the system, the project will help give people job skills, team members say.