Equilibrium & Sustainability

Brooklyn-based cleantech startup bringing rooftop Wi-Fi to 100,000 Bronx residents

Donnell Baird
Courtesy BlocPower

An energy startup based in New York City known for “turning buildings into Teslas” is about to roll out free and low-cost Wi-Fi to about 100,000 new users in the Bronx. 

The company, BlocPower, is installing “mesh networking antennae” on the rooftops of multifamily high-rises, churches and charter school buildings throughout the South Bronx.

Unlike traditional Wi-Fi networks, which use a single router and provide service to a limited area, a mesh network includes a group of “nodes” that communicate with each other — in this case, via rooftops — to enhance coverage.

The South Bronx network, which includes 50 public housing buildings, should be online in a couple weeks, Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, told The Hill.

 “Once we saw folks, and really children, struggling with the digital divide during the pandemic, we knew that we could … provide a data signal at low cost across certain communities,” he added.

BlocPower’s principal focus since its 2014 launch has been on retrofitting more than 1,100 buildings in under-served New York City communities with smart, all-electric heating and cooling systems. The company now has projects underway in 26 U.S. cities and recently raised $63 million in debt and equity — in one of the biggest early stage funding rounds by a Black entrepreneur, according to Reuters.

The company deployed an initial network alongside its clean energy assets in the Brownsville neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City, in 2017, according to Baird. So when local Bronx churches, as well as Catholic and charter schools, approached him during the height of the pandemic, he jumped at the opportunity.

At the time, Baird was serving on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Construction and Real Estate Advisory Council — one of several such COVID-19 councils within the mayor’s “fair recovery taskforce.”

“I suggested to the mayor that we could quickly use rooftops of public housing, which in the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens are often some of the tallest buildings around,” Baird said.

In about five weeks, the company plans to expand into Harlem and down through the east side of Manhattan, to downtown Brooklyn and out to east Brooklyn — the location of the 2017 system.

“We’re going to try to cover three, maybe four, boroughs with the system before the end of the year,” Baird said.

The South Bronx network, financed by local philanthropic foundations, will be owned and controlled by the residents and provide them with free Wi-Fi, Baird said.

Baird envisions constructing similar networks across the country. BlocPower is already in talks with Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and Milwaukee. While Baird acknowledged that the networks may not always be able to run on philanthropy, he said he hopes to keep Wi-Fi costs at no more than $10 per month. 

“We didn’t realize that the digital divide was as large as it is,” Baird said. “I was a little taken aback, even as a former community organizer and low-income person myself — I thought that more people had access to the internet.”

As he has expanded BlocPower’s reach, Baird said that connecting with community and religious leaders has been essential to bringing residents on board with the clean energy transition. Not only do residents trust religious institutions, but the physical structures that house these institutions are often “giant buildings that burn a ton of fossil fuels” — making them “great candidates” for a retrofit, he added.

BlocPower is continuing to expand in its home base, New York City, where de Blasio announced earlier this month that the company would be receiving $37 million to create 1,500 jobs for people at risk of gun violence.

People in the program are training in partnership with local organizations before getting matched to job placement sites, de Blasio’s office said. Program participants are earning salaries no lower than $20 per hour.

Some of the new hires are already at work constructing the Bronx Wi-Fi network, Baird said.

In a recent tweet announcing the system’s imminent deployment, Baird referred to the company’s new at-risk program as “the @BlocPower Civilian Conservation Corps.”

That name “is a direct callback to FDR,” he said, referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — the 1933 program devoted to environmental projects that were widely recognized as progressive, but that were also plagued by segregation practices, according to the National Parks Service.

“I think that President Biden and Sen. [Charles] Schumer have both embraced the idea of a new kind of CCC, a new kind of Climate Corps, as a part of the policy that they’d like to bring forward in the reconciliation bill,” Baird said, referring to the $3.5 trillion spending bill currently under discussion.

“We want to help shape the kinds of work that people do in a Climate Corps,” he continued, stressing the importance of “achievable, actionable” goals like bridging the digital divide and retrofitting buildings.

If the spending bill does end up passing through Congress, Baird said policymakers must ensure the funds reach low-income communities.

He urged the creation of a Small Business Innovation Research program in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as an interagency working group among HUD, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Also critical to this endeavor, he added, are public-private partnerships, “to make sure that low-income communities are getting the best that modern technology has to offer.”

Beyond BlocPower’s core projects in New York City, Baird said he is particularly excited about upcoming plans in Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia and New Jersey, where aggressive local laws have paved the way to advance clean energy technologies.

Baird also revealed that BlocPower is about to sign an agreement “to take a whole city off of fossil fuels” in a private-public partnership fueled by investments from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. While he said could not reveal the precise location for another few weeks, he told The Hill that it’s going to “be in the Empire State” and that the city in question would be fossil fuel free by 2025-2026.

“It’ll be the first American city to go off fossil fuels entirely,” he said.

Tags Bill de Blasio bronx Brooklyn Climate change Fossil fuels Joe Biden New York wifi
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