Northern Essex Community College turns idle parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots

With nearly all its classes now virtual due to COVID-19, Northern Essex Community College has found a productive use for its largely idle parking lots, making them Wi-Fi hot spots for students and local residents.

The college in early September began offering free Wi-Fi service at six of the eight parking lots on its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses, enabling students and community members to study and work online in their parked vehicles. The lots are otherwise nearly empty because so few classes are meeting on campus.

The initiative is a response to a survey the college undertook last spring in which students said spotty Internet service at home and finding a quiet place to study were two of the main challenges they faced in adjusting to remote learning, according to Ricardo “Danny” Rivera, Northern Essex’s assistant director of client technology and media services.

“We’ve always wanted to do outdoor Wi-Fi,” Rivera said, noting that the college has many grassy areas — particularly on its Haverhill campus — where students like to sit and do their homework. But until the pandemic, there was no thought of using parking lots.

That idea arose this summer when Rivera happened to be working with a vendor on a planned upgrade to the college’s indoor Wi-Fi systems. When he learned about the results of the survey, it occurred to him and other officials that creating wireless service in the parking lots would be a good solution to the needs expressed by students.

While the hot spots were spurred by the pandemic, the college expects to maintain them for the foreseeable future.

Patty Gosselin, a journalism/communications major in her final semester at Northern Essex, welcomes the outdoor Wi-Fi initiative, and looks forward to using the hot spot at the campus library in Haverhill.

After the pandemic struck, Gosselin said she found it challenging doing her course work, and the tasks required for a coop job, in the Newburyport apartment she shares with her mother and at the time her sister, who attends another college.

“Our apartment is very small so it’s not only difficult finding the space, but it’s also hard to get into the mindset of trying to work,” she said, adding that their Wi-Fi service also could be uneven when all three were trying to use it.

“That’s why I think these Wi-Fi parking lots are so great,” she said, observing that for her and many other college students, cars have offered a place of freedom during the pandemic, “a way of getting out of our rooms. Now the availability of Wi-Fi makes that an even better scenario. Working in a car is a little cramped, but it’s a lot better than trying to work from home.”

As a community service, Northern Essex is making the hot spots available to the general public, and with ample space in the lots, is not enforcing rules requiring the public to park in visitor spots.

If students face challenges working virtually, “possibly some of our neighbors are going through the same issues,” Rivera said. “We felt it was a good thing to allow those people to connect if they need to.”

The same vendor undertaking the indoor project loaned Northern Essex the antennae and other rooftop equipment needed to launch the service in the parking area last month. It will be replaced in the coming weeks by permanent equipment the college is purchasing.

The Wi-Fi hot spots are at the Technology Center, the Student Center, and the Library in Haverhill and the Dimitry Building, El-Hefni Allied Health Technology Center, and the Haffner Education Center in Lawrence.

For more information on the Wi-Fi initiative, e-mail [email protected]

John Laidler can be reached at [email protected].

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