New York libraries check out CBRS as Wi-Fi alternative

When COVID-19 forced schools across the country to go online, pictures of students in parking lots trying to get a Wi-Fi signal blew up the internet and woke up communities nationwide to the cost of the digital divide. But in New York City, parking lots are few and far between, and students without broadband access faced an additional challenge.

“A number of donors offered to help fund initiatives to extend Wi-Fi,” remembers Garfield Swaby, VP for IT at the New York Public Library. But Swaby knew Wi-Fi wasn’t the answer. “I don’t know if it would be able to get off the sidewalk,” he said.

Conversations with researchers at Seattle’s University of Washington and with Jason Eyre of Utah's Murray City School District convinced Swaby to evaluate CBRS using General Authorized Access. Grants totaling $1.5 million were solicited from S&P Global Fund and another private donor.

Swaby knew the libraries would be able to check out CBRS gateways to patrons because they already had a history of hotspot lending. He didn’t know exactly how his team would architect the network, so he invited multiple vendors to trial their technology at various library locations throughout the city.

The trial is still going on, and all but three network vendors have been eliminated. Motorola, Celona and Baicells are still in the running as of July 14, 2022. Each of these vendors supplies radio and core network equipment for at least one location. The library is also testing Spectrum Access Systems from both Google and Federated Wireless, and patrons can check out home gateways made by both Inseego and Cradlepoint, which is part of Ericsson.

“If we had decided to work with just one vendor our procurement team would have bristled,” explained Swaby. “So the trial was part of that due diligence.”

The library did choose just one systems integrator for the trial, New York-based Sky Packets. Swaby said Sky Packets performed almost all the installation of the Baicells equipment.

Currently five library locations have CBRS networks. One has Motorola gear, two have Celona networks, and two have Baicells equipment. Each location has just one CBRS antenna. Across all five locations, fewer than 100 households have been connected so far.

“The numbers of people who are walking in and checking out devices is still to me underwhelming,” said Swaby. He said most of the home gateways have been distributed by community outreach, such as library employees going into apartment buildings covered by the network and soliciting sign-ups.

"The cost per household is still very high,” said Swaby. “I think that is going to be a challenge for CBRS.” He said the home gateways cost roughly $250 each, plus an additional $40 to $100 per year for the management license.

So far, none of the users are paying for their gateways. Swaby envisioned the lending program as a stopgap measure that could help people connect to the internet for free during periods of financial instability, but he said people who check out the gateways are not returning them.

In September, the New York Public Library will evaluate the results of the trial and decide whether to continue investing in CBRS. Swaby said the library might seek federal funding to help subsidize the cost of the gateways for end users. But he’s not completely sure the project will move forward.

“CBRS isn’t a panacea,” he said. “It is a layer in a multi-layer solution to bridge the digital divide.”