Poor residents were promised Wi-Fi service. The Times found they didn't get it

It was a small Internet firm with big ambitions.

From a storefront in Inglewood, Manchester Community Technologies Inc. went to work and last year declared the firm had created corridors of free public Wi-Fi access for Internet-starved communities from Long Beach to Pasadena.

In a report to the California Public Utilities Commission in March of 2015 documenting what it did with nearly $500,000 in ratepayer fees, the company said it had deployed free Wi-Fi hot spots at eight parks and 16 community Wi-Fi networks, "enabling over 100,000 community based unique end-users the opportunity to connect to the Internet."

But today, most of those networks and hot spots don't link to the Internet.

In an initial survey late last year, The Times checked seven parks and 11 network locations, finding no Wi-Fi at any of them. A follow-up survey in March found network signals at three of the eight parks and 16 community locations but could not obtain a connection on any of them. The best results were on a section of Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park where several businesses were broadcasting free Wi-Fi on a community network.

In response to inquiries from The Times, the Public Utilities Commission visited the sites in January and determined that service was available at only two of the locations where Manchester Community Technologies was paid to provide free Wi-Fi, commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.

Revlyn Williams, Manchester Community Technologies' founder and executive director, said the networks had all functioned at one time. Maintaining them has proved difficult, she said, because businesses that form the backbone of the networks sometimes shut down their routers at night, lose equipment to theft or don't rely on the Internet enough to keep it running.

With the three-year grant now expired, her company will persist in its efforts with "God's help," Williams said.

Manchester Community Technologies' struggles to fulfill its promise underscore the challenge of providing universal Internet access in communities where commercial access points such as Starbucks coffee shops are rare and home-based broadband is unaffordable for many families. Free community networks represent one strategy being explored by government agencies in an effort to break the so-called digital divide.

The Times was tipped off to the Wi-Fi problems by Cal State Long Beach journalism professor Gwen Shaffer, who became suspicious while conducting research on community broadband access, which she characterizes as a social justice issue.

"No one can argue that Internet access is a luxury — not when you need to be online to apply for jobs, to access healthcare, to communicate with elected officials … to complete basic daily tasks," Shaffer said. "Anyone without Internet access is incredibly marginalized."

Shaffer, who teaches communications law and policy, contends that the case exposes poor oversight by the utilities commission, which failed to see obvious flaws in the firm's application and made no attempt to verify the claims in the company's 2015 progress report.

Shaffer criticized the PUC for not doing a more thorough investigation into whether the sites were improving Wi-Fi service. Instead, regulators "simply reprint the reports and tout accomplishments."

The PUC said the entire program will be audited this year.

Manchester Community Technologies' grant was from the California Advanced Services Fund that directs $315 million in ratepayer surcharges to promote "deployment of high-quality advanced communications services to all Californians." Most of the money goes to capital projects to expand Internet to areas of the state that don't have it.

A small portion of that was given to regional groups primarily to promote use of the Internet in areas such as South Los Angeles. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, about a third of U.S. adults do not subscribe to broadband service at home, primarily because of the cost.

Of the funds the PUC set aside for "underserved" areas in Los Angeles County, the bulk of that money was aimed at education and outreach. Manchester Community Technologies was responsible for the portion of the grant for direct services.

James E. Prieger, a Pepperdine University economist who specializes in the Internet, questioned the goal of deploying free Wi-Fi where large service providers offer Internet access.

It would be more productive, Prieger said, to give subsidies to poor households.

"If you just subsidize an area, you are going to be subsidizing a lot of people who don't need it," Prieger said.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission endorsed Prieger's approach, voting to make all low-income families eligible for subsidies from a ratepayer fund to pay for broadband.

But Prosper, the PUC spokeswoman, defended the expenditure on free Wi-Fi, as a complementary strategy for providing access to those who otherwise couldn't afford it.

Williams said her firm attempted to create free Wi-Fi networks by enlisting business owners and government agencies to share a portion of their Internet bandwidth with the public. The signals from individual businesses, she said, were woven together into Wi-Fi zones up to 11/2 miles square.

Williams demonstrated what the firm called its flagship network during an interview with The Times at her office on Manchester Boulevard. A laptop computer connected automatically to a network called "CommunityWiFi."

A page appeared on the screen with local advertisements and listings, and a "browse" button linked to the Internet.

Returning a week later, however, The Times could find no signal for the network outside the company's office.

Williams also said the hot spots at eight parks were functioning, but not necessarily reaching the buildings where children used computers.

Because the group had not received approval from L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks to tap into the city's Internet feed, the routers were instead set up at nearby buildings and broadcast into the park, Williams said.

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city supports the deployment of Wi-Fi in parks, but because of security concerns does not allow its Internet to be broadcast to the public.

At one of the parks, Fred Roberts Recreation Center in Central Alameda, children in after-school programs sit at computers in several rooms. But they have no Internet connection.

Manchester Community Technologies worked with a nonprofit called LAURA to deploy a Wi-Fi hot spot there.

But Adela Bajaras, LAURA's founder, said she never received approval from the parks department to install the Wi-Fi equipment.

Instead, she carries the router in her trunk and brings it on Thursdays for a youth group meeting she leads.

At nearby Ross Snyder Recreation Center, director Javier Soto said he would like Internet access for the youths who use the facility, but he doesn't have it.

Williams said the park does have a hot spot. It is provided by the Concerned Citizens of South Los Angeles from a nearby building, she said.

The Times could find no signal at the recreation center.

doug.smith@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 03, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Free Wi-Fi effort falls short - Firm that got state funds vowed to link poor areas to Internet, but failed to deliver, The Times finds." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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