Seventy low-income and special needs units in this apartment complex will offer Plume-managed Wi-Fi.
Enlarge / Seventy low-income and special needs units in this apartment complex will offer Plume-managed Wi-Fi.

Michael Bennett Kress Photography

Montgomery County, Maryland offers its low-income and special needs citizens Internet access via a 600-linear-mile fiber route as part of its Digital Equity program. In a new pilot project, the county will add onsite Wi-Fi—by way of Plume superpods—to its existing basic Internet access.

Digital Equity is defined as a condition in which all individuals in a society can access the technology needed to fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy. The Office of Broadband Programs (OBP) is taking steps towards achieving digital equity in Montgomery County, through programs such as expanding broadband services, educating seniors, and aiding individuals in connecting to the internet.

—Montgomery County Office of Broadband Programs

Ars spoke to Montgomery County’s Chief Broadband Officer, Joe Webster, about the upcoming project. Webster told us that although the county has been providing free or low-cost Internet service to residents in need for some time, significant challenges remain beyond the demarc. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “demarc” is ISP shorthand for “point of demarcation”—the point beyond which your IT problems are your own, not the service provider’s.

Wi-Fi is a particular pain point, and the low-income and special needs citizens served by Joe’s office face particular challenges trying to set up and administer in-home Wi-Fi, due to both the expense and complexity. Ongoing support of in-home Wi-Fi is also a challenging and expensive proposition—network equipment vendor Actiontec claims 60 percent of all ISP support calls are really for Wi-Fi, not the Internet service itself.

Pilot program at Main Street Apartments

Main Street Apartments

Main Street Apartments is a new apartment complex in Montgomery County that offers both “market rate” apartments and affordable units for special needs and low-income county residents who are customers of Webster’s MOCONET low-cost Internet access. Its developers have a special needs son of their own and planned the complex in part to ensure high-quality affordable housing for him and for other Maryland County residents like him.

Although the developers intended for the complex to offer special needs units from the beginning, Webster himself wasn’t made aware of the four-year project until it was only weeks from completion. Each apartment had coaxial cable installed, configured for 50Mbps symmetrical connections to the building’s 1Gbps WAN via Positron Access MOCA equipment—but there was no provision for wired networking within the units themselves.

By the time Webster was brought onboard, the walls and ceilings were already up, and the painting had already begun—so it was too late to run Ethernet cable for traditional commercial access points. This left wireless mesh as the only realistic option for high-quality, in-apartment Wi-Fi in each unit.

Why Plume?

This is the overhead view of a home network from Plume's virtual Network Operations Center. Plume techs can see what devices are present, how they're connected, and what problems they might be experiencing.
Enlarge / This is the overhead view of a home network from Plume’s virtual Network Operations Center. Plume techs can see what devices are present, how they’re connected, and what problems they might be experiencing.

Plume

Webster was familiar with Plume from articles he’d read in trade publications and knew that they had partnered with ISPs to provide their customers in-home Wi-Fi. But Plume isn’t the only company providing high-quality Wi-Fi mesh.

Although Plume’s Superpods are the highest-performing consumer Wi-Fi mesh equipment we’ve tested, less expensive competitors such as Amazon’s Eero are usually our first recommendation. But Plume was a natural fit for Webster’s MOCONET where its competitors were not, because it offers something they don’t—comprehensive end-user support.

Webster told Ars that his NOC—Network Operations Center—is set up for site support, not end-user support. Realistically, even the best Wi-Fi needs support of its own—and the Wi-Fi serves end users and their personal devices with little or no expectation of technical experience on their part.

Plume’s partnership with MOCONET includes direct end-user support for residents in Main Street’s affordable and special-needs units. Each unit in the county program gets refrigerator magnets with Plume’s toll-free number for first-line technical support. Plume’s technicians will directly handle the majority of support calls, using the Superpods’ comprehensive telemetry to analyze the Wi-Fi network and its connected devices.

When the problems uncovered are with the apartment’s connection to the building site-wide WAN link—or the WAN itself—Plume will escalate those issues directly to MOCONET’s NOC themselves, removing the possibility of customers getting stuck between finger-pointing vendors.

Webster is also hopeful that family and friends will find Plume’s motion detection feature useful to check in on their special needs loved ones.

Plans for the future

For now, MOCONET is trialing Plume in the Main Street apartments only. Webster tells us that Montgomery County is seeking to learn from this pilot project and apply its lessons to expand the availability of no cost/low cost to more Montgomery County residents in the future.

Although wired Ethernet backhaul is always the best technical solution for Wi-Fi access, reality frequently erects roadblocks to deploying it—particularly for non-commercial programs like the county’s Office of Broadband Programs, where additional expense can’t just be passed down to a customer.

A working partnership with a Wi-Fi mesh vendor like Plume—particularly one that, like Plume, can take the bulk of end-user support off the county’s metaphorical shoulders—could make it possible to extend Internet access not only to the residences, but directly to the devices of the county residents in need.