Microsoft helps bring broadband to Valley Junction
The Valley Junction neighborhood in West Des Moines, Iowa, encompasses roughly 1,200 residents and 180 small businesses. Sixty-one percent of the students at Hillside Elementary School, which serves Valley Junction, qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. The neighborhood is considered a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) community development block due to its concentration of low to moderate income students. However, the significant lack of affordable broadband options makes it difficult for students to compete in today’s high-tech world, a challenge exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Improving internet availability in Valley Junction
The City of West Des Moines and Microsoft have partnered on a three-year pilot project to bring free community Wi-Fi service to the Valley Junction neighborhood. Microsoft contributed funding to the project. The Valley Junction neighborhood was selected for the project because of the area’s historical significance to West Des Moines and because of the lack of affordable high-speed broadband options for the neighborhood’s students.
“We were hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence from people saying kids don’t have Wi-Fi connectivity. They have 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,’” said Clyde Evans, Director of Community and Economic Development for the City of West Des Moines. Home internet access became even more crucial given the increase of at-home work and schooling during the pandemic, and the reduced availability of public access points.
Promoting affordable internet for students and area businesses
Funds contributed by Microsoft were combined with city investments and a federal HUD community block grant. The project was borne from economic and development planning discussions between the City and the West Des Moines Leadership Advisory Board (WestLAB). WestLAB identified broadband infrastructure as a priority for retaining and recruiting businesses and citizens. WestLAB recognized that high-speed broadband service is seen as the “fourth utility,” and access to affordable broadband service is foundational to enhancing economic and educational opportunities.
“Access to high-speed broadband service is critical to success in today’s world,” said Steve Gaer, Mayor of West Des Moines. “So much of our everyday lives—from banking and commerce to communication, education, and entertainment—requires access to reliable broadband service. We want to ensure that high-speed broadband is available to all of our residents and businesses so that everyone has the best opportunity to be successful.”
In 2018 and 2019, the team deployed free public Wi-Fi throughout the central business district, moving 91.2 Terabytes of traffic in the past year. Leading up to 2020, the city launched a marketing campaign to reach homes that were eligible for reduced rate point-to-point broadband service. This effort helped to set up 400 residences in the adjacent community to Valley Junction with point-to-point internet to their homes.
From 2020 to 2021, 82 residences were serviced by the new point-to-point broadband network, with 270 unique devices logging on. The network moved a total of 123 Terabytes of data over that time period – the equivalent of 26,200 DVDs.
Robert Sloan, Datacenter Community Broadband program lead says, “Microsoft is committed to closing the digital divide in the community of West Des Moines by supporting access to affordable broadband. With the global pandemic, the broadband gap is a prominent issue as more of our daily lives are online. I’m proud to see the progress in Valley Junction and so grateful for the many people who are helping close the broadband gap.”
“We want to ensure that high-speed broadband is available to all of our residents and businesses so that everyone has the best opportunity to be successful.”—Steve Gaer, Mayor, West Des Moines