Church Wi-Fi to Bridge the Digital Divide
When you travel with most young people and enter a new public space, what is the first thing they do?
Before seeking a restroom or a cup of coffee (my priorities) they pull out their phones and check for free Wi-Fi. Every time. Every place.
And when they don’t find it, they’re annoyed.
The lack of access to the internet, or digital connectivity, isn’t merely a matter of inconvenience. Internet connectivity is a necessity in many aspects of our lives - and not just for young people! Yet home broadband access varies greatly across demographic measures, including household income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, age, and community type (urban/suburban/rural).
In Pittsburgh, the city launched a plan to improve access to the Internet and technology, which includes expanding public Wi-Fi access in parks, senior centers and other public areas. Public libraries embrace these efforts to bridge the digital divide, and offer accessible community spaces where people who might not otherwise be digitally connected can access Wi-Fi and partake in programs to improve their digital skills. As often under-utilized community facilities, churches could do the same.
How to Support Your Community with Wi-Fi
Church Wi-Fi (like church coffee) is notoriously bad -- but it doesn’t have to be. Even with the thick stone walls of many of our older buildings, there are ways to safely offer public Wi-Fi in your church building. It’s not only hospitable to members and guests, but if your facility is in an area where segments of the population do not have internet access, this could be a valuable service to your community.
Some tips to get you started:
- Determine the functionality and strength of your current internet connection. If you check and see what internet services are available for your church, you may be surprised to find that less expensive and faster connections have become available since you last contracted with your local service provider. One way to upgrade your physical cabling is to negotiate with your provider – if you are willing to upgrade to their digital phone system, for example, it might be incentive for your service provider to assume the cost of upgrading your connection to accommodate that system and therefore improve your internet connectivity.
- Evaluate your existing security for hardware and networks. If you are going to offer free public Wi-Fi, you will want to create a private Wi-Fi network for use by church employees. All data and processing needed for church management, particularly confidential membership or financial data, should only be shared on this private network. Likewise, make sure that all pieces of church hardware – computers, printers, iPads, routers, servers – are protected by secure passwords and logins. No more ‘1-2-3-4-5-6’ or ‘admin’ passwords known by the entire congregation and easily guessed by anyone who tries to log on.
- Boost your Wi-Fi coverage. There are advantageous ways to position Wi-Fi routers, access points, and satellite units throughout the building. Note – more Wi-Fi access points don’t necessarily equate to better signal strength. Too much Wifi broadcast traffic can cause interference, especially if you are not using a smart mesh system that can make channel adjustments. At St. Paul’s Episcopal in Pittsburgh – where the walls are thick and made of stone – we use the Ubiquiti Unifi wifi network to ensure coverage throughout the building. Here’s an article in the NYTimes explaining how mesh networks work in a home environment – which can be adapted to the needs of larger facilities. In considering your Wi-Fi coverage, be sure to consider the router limitations related to the number of IP addresses that will use the Wi-Fi. Also consider the maximum number of simultaneous users - know that multiple access points don’t necessarily allow you to add users cumulatively. If you are going to have large numbers of people (over 200) connecting to Wi-Fi simultaneously this adds a level of complexity. Investing in a good router - not necessarily the router associated with your modem - allows you to create multiple networks (public and private), boost the number of users, and associate each network with different ports. Finally, if you do a lot of live streaming, you may want to limit the public network upload speed. which will keep bandwidth available for the private network to use.
- Latest is not always greatest. Another lesson we learned at St. Paul’s with our thick stone walls is that the technology you may THINK you want can sometimes be inferior to the previous generation. At St. Paul’s, the signal from the latest 5 Ghz wifi devices degrades dramatically when passing through the walls in our environment, while the prior-generation 2.4 Ghz devices work well. Having this knowledge saved us a lot of heartache and a pretty good deal of money.
- Play it safe. When you set up your public Wi-Fi, keep your users safe by setting up the public Wi-Fi with guest isolation policies - meaning that users on the public network can ONLY see the internet and can't discover each other on the network. Again, a good router will allow you to do this, as well as create and protect your private network and keep it distinct from your public network. Also, if you are concerned about people using your public Wi-Fi to access offensive or illegal material, you can setup your router to block undesirable content through a number of subscription services.
- Model ethical practices. While churches would most likely not be held legally responsible for illegal content downloads or copyright infringement violations committed by public users unbeknownst to the church, churches do have an ethical responsibility to discourage such practices. Model ethical practices In your own communications, making sure that you only share content that you have permission to distribute and with attribution where it is required. This covers images, video or audio recordings of music (both the original composition and the arrangement may be subject to copyright laws), and written text.
- Make it known. Post “Free Wi-Fi” signage with the public Wi-Fi network and password; and also include this information in your church bulletins and other publications. Make the password easy and invitational - “Welcome!” for example.
- Invite those who need access. If your community is one in which certain people might lack internet access, consider how you might invite them into your space. What would be required to create an internet café area? And could it actually be a café (bringing us back to the coffee)?!
Being a welcoming community is more than throwing open our doors and saying, “C’mon in!” It’s about meeting people where they are and providing for their needs. Public Wi-Fi is just a new way of providing old-fashioned hospitality and support in the digital space.One of my favorite digital blessings is “May your faith be stronger than your Wi-Fi signal.” Let’s turn that around so that the blessing becomes, “May your faith be as strong as your Wi-Fi signal – and may you share both faith and Wi-Fi with the world!
- Lisa Brown, Director of Digital Ministry
Our goal at Membership Vision is to help churches and other faith communities to tell their stories in the digital space. Each church, irrespective of size, has a living and active story to tell, and technology provides an opportunity to share that story in a way that is welcoming and engaging. We ease the burden of keeping communications current, by leveraging content, and harnessing the many ways that members of our communities connect with each other, both inside and outside of the church walls. We aim to remove technological hurdles and allow churches to communicate online in an effective and sustainable way. Contact us at email@example.com or call (805) 626-0143 to talk about the ways we can help your church build a digital presence.
No matter where you are, may you find a cell signal. And Wi-Fi.