Dallas ISD wants to create private wireless networks to help families without Internet access
Audra Brown stands on her porch with her 2-year-old granddaughter Toya. Her four grandsons are inside their home in the Buckeye Trail social housing community in South Dallas.
âThey’re playing on their shelves,â says Brown. “Just a few games that came with the tablet.”
In the spring, when COVID-19 was spreading, the boys’ school, JJ Rhoads Learning Center, switched to virtual learning. Brown didn’t want her grandsons falling behind in school, so she started paying AT&T $ 46 per month for broadband, but couldn’t afford to continue.
âI got behind on a few bills, so I feel like the internet can hold up,â says Brown. âWe’re paying for the lights and the rent and I don’t want to be late on anything. “
Hot spots: a temporary solution
JJ Rhoads principal Chandra Macklin said almost all of her students come from low-income backgrounds. She understands that Internet access is often a luxury that most families at her school cannot afford, but it has now become a necessity.
Her students have made huge strides in the past two years and she doesn’t want them to regress. So in the spring, she made sure her families knew how to get portable hotspots. These are small devices that students can use to connect to the Internet from their homes.
âConnectivity is important now. This is how we communicate,â Macklin said. Some teachers have even gone to families’ homes to help parents connect, whatever it takes to make sure students are still learning.
âI didn’t know how to use this stuff so I called the school and there was always someone there who could help me,â Brown said.
Macklin said she was grateful the school district was prepared with hot pots so her students could go online from home.
âI will say I’m grateful to our superintendent and his foresight and the way he views it,â Macklin said. “How he projects himself into the future on what is going to be needed.”
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said when COVID-19 started to spread, he needed to make sure he could get his students online quickly. Hot spots were the fastest way to do it. But he wants a more permanent solution to the lack of Internet access for ISD Dallas students, especially those in South Dallas.
âThe same places that don’t have broadband are the same that don’t have Starbucks. They don’t have groceries,â Hinojosa said. “These are the same places where you have high crime rates. So all of those things are related.”
Texas State Senator Royce West said this issue was not new.
âThis problem has been going on for over 20 years,â West said. “When you start to overlap with the census tracts that have the highest incidence of poverty, unemployment, and criminal justice issues, there is a positive correlation between the two.”
West said the lack of proper infrastructure in the South Dallas area limits people’s access – and their potential.
âThe point is, you can’t function in this world without connectivity anymore,â he said.
A permanent solution
Jordana Barton works for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Like millions of Americans, she started working full time from home when COVID-19 hit.
âI was working on my Fed virtual private network,â Barton explained. “I have a computer and I have access to the virtual private network through my little code that I put in. And you know, that’s how I access the Internet.”
As she entered her code one spring morning, she had an “a-ha” moment. For years, she has studied the digital divide and its impact on low-income communities in Texas. Now, because of the pandemic, his work was getting more attention. Cities frantically searched for solutions as the need for reliable internet access became essential, especially when it came to virtual learning.
âI no longer had to explain that this is a problem,â Barton said. âSo I was working on my VPN and I was like, why don’t we give this to the students? It is an enterprising solution. Why should only businesses have this opportunity? “
The Fed, like many large corporations, has its own private wireless network, connecting employees to a central tower. The signal travels – using public infrastructure – from the tower to other contact points, until it reaches the employee’s home.
The 2015 Dallas ISD School Requirement enabled all Dallas ISD schools to have wireless connections inside schools. The idea would be to take that same signal and send it to a student’s home.
Pinkston High School could install an antenna on its roof and transmit broadband signals to home receivers. A student can then enter a code into their laptop and connect to the network from home.
âYou invest in this one-time expense in terms of capital expenditure. It’s a one-time cost,â Barton explained. “And you are paying it with Cares Act or philanthropic funds to solve this huge, yawning problem.”
The CARES Act gave state and local governments money to cover costs related to Covid-19 between March and December of this year.
In June, San Antonio was the first city in Texas to adopt Barton’s plan. City council approved $ 27 million to connect 20,000 low-income postal code students to their school districts, community colleges and universities using private wireless networks.
Dallas follows in San Antonio’s footsteps.
“It’s a rare moment in time and no one expected it, but I was so inspired.” said Dottie Smith. She co-chairs the Internet for All coalition and is president of the nonprofit education association. She worked with Barton and 40 different leaders in nine school districts, nonprofits, and city and state governments. The coalition also includes local telecommunications and internet providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Spectrum – who will potentially benefit from private wireless networks as they would secure a major contract with a guaranteed paid bill.
âWe hope that vendors will be able to reduce costs while maintaining throughput high enough to provide families with access to all the learning experiences they need,â said Smith.
Barton said his public-private partnership benefits the community.
âYou are creating a win-win situation for everyone,â Barton said. âThe ISP gets more business. The school district gets some kind of affordable shared rate. We, the public entities, get the best rates. “
How do you pay for it?
Dallas City Council and DISD School Board last month approved energy company CNC to create a national telecommunications and engineering plan. Hinojosa said the goal is to create long-term, county-wide infrastructure to ensure all students and families have internet access in their homes for good.
The city contributes approximately $ 10 million from their CARES Act funds.
Hinojosa said the district has budgeted for $ 40 million.
âWe have a very healthy reserve,â Hinojosa said. “We could take it out of our savings account. There could be government dollars.”
It’s like having water and electricity.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa
He hopes the federal government will help him and other school districts as well. He and other city leaders want electronic rate money that the Federal Communications Commission distributes to cities, school districts, hospitals and libraries for broadband infrastructure to include families who want connect to the Internet.
Districts rely on electronic rate money to finance their Internet connectivity work. At the start of the pandemic, the FCC relaxed some of the hedging rules. But this change was not made permanent despite pressure from school districts.
âAnd then there’s the Hero’s Act which has a lot of money for infrastructure,â Hinojosa said. However, he admits that this bill, along with a few others focusing on Internet infrastructure, is stuck in the Senate.
He said there was money in the 2020 bond package as well if voters approved it.
âWe have several financing solutions in case one of them isn’t right for us,â Hinojosa said. âThis is extremely important. We don’t know when this pandemic will be over. There are areas that are very underserved by broadband, most of them are in South Dallas. Once you connect them, they will have access to telehealth and they can also have access to job application. So this is a multi-layered solution for the long term. “
Perhaps this is why Hinojosa is focusing on the coalition to help solve this decades-old problem.
âWhen you have the county, the city, the nonprofits, you have these entities involved – then that’s a better solution,â Hinojosa said. “It’s like having water and electricity, that’s why this long-term solution is important and that’s why we really put a lot of eggs in this basket.”
If all goes according to plan, Hinojosa said the district will pilot private virtual networks at four high schools in Dallas in October.
This story was produced through a collaborative partnership between KERA and Dallas Free Press.
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