A community broadband equity pilot project between the city of West Des Moines, Microsoft Corp., T-Mobile and other partners is entering phase two of the ambitious three-year plan, officials said at a news conference Wednesday. 

The city now offers free public Wi-Fi, managed by Ovation Network, from the West Des Moines Business Incubator on Fifth Street to Railroad Park; created point-to-point Wi-Fi service with Aureon Technology for five low- and moderate-income households and residents of Phenix School Apartments; and provided free mobile hot spot devices for 100 low- and moderate-income families with students in grades three through six, with Microsoft and T-Mobile. 

“The thought leadership of the city is really kind of an example as we’re developing other programs and other parts of the country,” said Robert Sloan, principal program manager for data center community development at Microsoft. “It’s something that allows me to go into other conversations and other parts of the country, and use it as an example. … You can use it as a framework as kind of the best practices — what part of what we’re doing fits with what your community needs, what part doesn’t.” 

The initial phase of the project, announced in July 2018, targeted the Valley Junction neighborhood and cost between $600,000 and $800,000 for the first two years. Microsoft, which owns three data centers located in West Des Moines, has committed an additional $100,000 to the Valley Junction project in the next phase. 

The city and the Historic Valley Junction Foundation can also return to public financing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and access additional private funding, said Dave Lyons, innovation consultant for West Des Moines.

“The public expectation is ‘I want it wherever I need it, whenever I need it,’ and the city has limited authority to order that to happen. We really needed a different type of model,” Lyons said.

“There is no existing business plan out there that looks exactly like a public/private partnership here,” he added. 

Valley Junction is considered historically significant to the community, yet has the highest concentration of low- to moderate-income families with limited broadband access in West Des Moines. Sixty-one percent of students at Hillside Elementary School qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. 

Some Valley Junction households have access to mobile devices through national subsidy program Lifeline, which was recently expanded to support broadband service. 

“If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work at all,” Lyons said. “[They are] people who, if they are introduced to a world of digital divide today, things just get worse over time.” 

“We’re also hearing from families saying that ‘this is a great start, [but] we would really like to be hard-wired,’” said Brian Abeling, technology director of West Des Moines Community Schools. 

Public Wi-Fi from the first phase can support about 500 users at once. Once Wi-Fi is extended, each signal device — which is “about the size of a toaster,” Lyons said — could support an additional 100 to 200 users. 

Valley Junction residents can expect to receive regular updates on the project through a developing marketing project by the city and door-to-door representatives. The city has also asked Ovation Network to consider how they would design the Wi-Fi network to last after the third year of the pilot. 

“The city’s perspective … wants there to be both universal access and wide choice. So anything we can do to make this infrastructure able to deliver more choices in the future, whether it’s low-income families or non-low-income families, whether it’s individuals or businesses, we will keep those opportunities as open as possible,” Lyons said.