West Des Moines, Microsoft to partner on pilot community Wi-Fi access

A new pilot project between the city of West Des Moines and Microsoft Corp., among other partners, aims to change the way Valley Junction neighborhood residents and businesses access high-speed broadband service. 

The broadband equity pilot project will provide levels of free community Wi-Fi access to Valley Junction homes, businesses, employees, visitors and students at Hillside Elementary School through partnerships with local providers, Microsoft and T-Mobile’s EmpowerED program. The system is expected to be launched in October, West Des Moines city officials said. 

The three-year project will provide Federal Communications Commission-standard connection speeds of 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream, said Robert Sloan, principal program manager for data center community development at Microsoft. 

Initial implementation of the broadband equity pilot starts this month, targeting the Valley Junction neighborhood from First Street to Eighth Street and Railroad Avenue to Vine Street. Aureon Network Services will provide access to its fiber network, and Ovation Networks will operate the community Wi-Fi system through the pilot project. A second, two-year pilot project among the West Des Moines School District, Microsoft and T-Mobile will provide free, take-home mobile internet hotspot devices and data plans for low- to moderate-income students.

The city anticipates total funding for the first year to be $400,000. Microsoft is contributing $150,000 to the project, and the remaining balance will be covered by the last four years’ worth of Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saved by West Des Moines for this project; and private funding by the Historic Valley Junction Foundation.

Total costs for the remaining two years should be lower after infrastructure is initially installed, said Clyde Evans, director of community and economic development for the city of West Des Moines. 

“There may be some additional infrastructure they’ll have to put up, but the main build of the costs are going to be upfront,” Evans said. 

PILOTING A NEIGHBORHOOD

Valley Junction is a historical center of West Des Moines, but is also considered “left behind” by the city in terms of fewer investments, including telecom and broadband services, as the rest of West Des Moines boomed in population and commercial services. Sixty-one percent of students at Hillside Elementary School, which serves Valley Junction, qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. 

The neighborhood encompassed by the pilot project has about 1,200 residents and 180 small businesses.

“While I would say equity of access is not where anybody would like to see it for West Des Moines, it isn’t where anybody would like to see it anywhere,” said Dave Lyons, innovation consultant for West Des Moines. 

Students in third grade and higher struggled to access and complete homework after school hours, without access to internet at their homes, Evans said.

“We were hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence from people saying kids don’t have Wi-Fi connectivity,” Evans said. “They were having to go to McDonald’s or go back up to the elementary school and sit out on the curb so they could get Wi-Fi connection, because the families really couldn’t afford $50 a month for internet service … We said, ‘OK, we need to do something to help bridge that digital divide here.’” 

Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp., which has spent about $3.5 billion building three data centers in West Des Moines, had been in discussions with city officials about opportunities for community investment. Broadband access aligned with Microsoft’s existing goals, said Mike Miles, general manager of the community development team at Microsoft.

“Our organization is focused on connecting our employees that work in our data center communities, [West Des Moines] being one of our bigger campuses, with Microsoft’s programs that help them build better relationships with the community,” Miles said. “We really want to make sure that our relationship with the community is healthy, we want to make sure that our employees have an opportunity to give back to the community where they live.”

LEVELS OF ACCESS

The pilot project, which has been in planning stages for two years, features a few levels of access for community members within the boundaries. 

The largest effort will create free public access Wi-Fi through the neighborhood, offering anyone who logs on access for up to two hours a day. Students or employees at local businesses will have continuous access, managed by the school district or the Historic Valley Junction Foundation. 

The project also includes a secondary, two-year pilot among the school district, Microsoft and T-Mobile, with the goal of offering Wi-Fi and data plans to low- and moderate-income households without internet access. 

Through T-Mobile’s EmpowerED program, students in third grade and above – who receive a 1:1 Chromebook from the West Des Moines School District – will be given a take-home “Mifi” hotspot device, donated by T-Mobile, and a data plan subscription paid by Microsoft.

Microsoft will also begin testing point-to-point wireless systems, so households will receive direct connectivity in the future rather than relying on continued mobile hot spots.

“Part of this pilot will be … is there something appealing to the market for other private companies to come in and start offering services at a price point that a community like Valley Junction can afford? Does it exist, is it affordable?” Sloan said. 

Households and businesses considering ending an existing broadband plan should keep in mind the project is for three years, Evans said. Businesses should maintain industry standard security to protect sensitive data. 

“I don’t think anybody wants to open themselves up to having a name attached to something that isn’t industry-standard,” Sloan said.