California school districts and cities that are grappling with unequal internet access among their students during the pandemic are taking it upon themselves to solve the problem.
Early on, schools often gave individual hotspots to students who don’t have the means to access the internet at home. But service can be patchy and expensive. So, some communities — San Jose, West Contra Costa County, Kings County and Oakland among others — are building their own wireless network infrastructure.
School districts and cities are laying down the fiber cable and installing Wi-Fi access points, complete with modems and routers on light poles and traffic lights. Some are even becoming internet service providers themselves (ISP) — efforts, they say, that will make it easier to provide internet access to those who can’t afford it.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond estimated in October that up to 1 million students could be lacking either computers or internet access needed to participate in distance learning. The Legislative Analyst’s Office, in an October brief, said that while 97% of California households have access to broadband, many lack a strong enough connection to handle multiple people using the network at the same time, and many low-income families in urban and rural areas are still completely unconnected.
West Contra Costa Unified, a 30,000-student district in the East Bay Area with more than 65% of its students eligible for free-and reduced-price meals, turned to the concept of a community wireless network as a solution. It was “an equity and access issue,” said Tony Wold, the district’s associate superintendent of business services.
It was also a tradeoff between short- and long-term costs and benefits.
Since campuses closed in March, the district distributed more than 5,000 hotspots to students who either don’t have internet access at home or who don’t have a strong enough home wireless connection for distance learning. The need for these hotspots continues to grow, Wold said, since the heavy usage can drive up internet bills for cash-strapped families and strain connections.
The district pays the $15 monthly network bill for each hotspot using CARES act funding, said Tracey Logan, the district’s chief technology officer. Continuing to pay for the hotspots will end up costing the district more than $900,000 a year, Wold said, who expects distance learning in some form to continue even after students return to campuses.
When CARES money runs out, the district’s choice is to either pay the $900,000 a year for the foreseeable future out of its general fund for the hot spots or invest an estimated $6 million to $8 million to build the community wireless network — using construction bond funds — to replace the hotspots. All students would need to use it would be their West Contra Costa Unified login and password.
“We know these hotspots are in a sense a waste of money,” said Wold. “You’re getting nothing in return other than the kid is connected, and every year you’re paying for it again and again. So, we started looking at what we can do to get a return on investment; what can we do to permanently break the divide.
“Even though the pandemic will end at some point, the students still need access to electronic material at home at night because our teachers have learned to use electronic equipment and electronic devices. We’re not all of a sudden going to go back to only using textbooks when we’re back permanently.”
The West Contra Costa school board on Nov. 18 unanimously approved $50,000 of federal CARES Act funds to be used to pay a consulting group to find three test areas in Richmond and San Pablo — the cities in the district’s footprint with the highest need — to begin a pilot program. The district will install routers on light poles and other public infrastructure in those areas and use the fiber that those cities had previously laid down as part of their own community Wi-Fi networks.
When set up, the district will have all the students in those areas connect at the same time and run other tests to determine the strength of the network.
“Once that works, we expand to cover the entire cities of Richmond and San Pablo,” said Wold. “And then we begin the conversations with the other three cities, where there’s smaller density, to determine the best possible solution for those students as well.”
Though the district hopes to begin expanding the network beyond the test spots by the end of this school year, it’s unclear how long it will take before the district can offer community Wi-Fi to its whole geographic footprint. That time frame depends on how much fiber already exists and whether PG&E will allow the district to use its light poles and other infrastructure to install routers for the network.
The district won’t need to work with PG&E until after the consulting group completes the proof of concept, Wold said. Whether the district needs to use PG&E’s infrastructure depends on whether there are spots in the coverage area where there is no city property nearby, he said.
A similar plan is underway in San Jose, where city and district officials are teaming up to build a free local internet network. Families with school-age children are a priority in the city’s digital inclusion initiative, which includes an education goal to provide all students in San Jose public schools with a computer, broadband access and digital literacy.
Despite being located at the center of California’s Silicon Valley, nearly 11% of households in San Jose — representing about 100,000 predominantly low-income families — did not have home internet access, according to 2014-18 American Community Survey data.
Dubbed East Side Community WiFi, the network is a joint effort between the East Side Union High School District and the City of San Jose to provide internet to more than 40,000 residents. The neighborhood surrounding James Lick High School was the first to receive internet access last year, followed by the William C. Overfelt neighborhood, which was completed this summer.
“It isn’t perfect,” said Phelps, “but it is very good and a better solution than hotspots.”
The city worked out an agreement with PG&E in order to lay down fiber in those areas, said East Side Union chief technology officer Randy Phelps. PG&E also didn’t charge the district for electricity, he said, though they might when the network expands to other neighborhoods. Phelps said the district is hoping to work out a deal with PG&E for a discounted rate as the district adds more neighborhoods to the network.
The district is still using hotspots for students who live in other neighborhoods, he said.
Using existing fiber connections at light poles and traffic lights, the city was able to bypass contracting with a private telecommunications company and built access points around the school’s attendance areas so that users can connect either directly to fiber or a radio signal that is connected to the fiber. East Side Union has been laying down underground fiber cables throughout its attendance area since 2016, using voter-approved bond funds.
The City of Oakland is also piloting a community Wi-Fi network, dubbed “Oak Wi-Fi,” which was rolled out in three neighborhoods in November.
The community Wi-Fi model is also being embraced in more rural areas of the state. In Kings County, families with preschool through college age students, as well as teachers, school staff and county employees, can sign up for KingsNet, an internet service run through the County Office of Education.
Unlike San Jose’s effort, however, KingsNet comes with a monthly service fee and late fees for unpaid bills. Discounts are available for low-income students but activating the service could still cost nearly $50 even with a reduced price, according to prices on the KingsNet website.
Wold and Logan said they expect school district-offered community wireless networks like these to become more common. But in order for that to happen, the federal E-Rate program — which partially subsidizes internet costs for school districts and libraries — needs to be tweaked. As of now, the program’s subsidies can only be used for internet connection costs for the buildings on school campuses. Advocacy groups are calling on the Federal Communications Commission, congress and the Biden administration to extend the program to reimburse districts and libraries for internet connection costs for e-learning as well.
“I’m proud that we are jumping in and doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Logan said. “At the same time this should be a basic human right, all families should be able to have access to the internet for free or a reduced cost.”
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