Free Wi-Fi in Phoenix School Districts to Help End the Digital Divide


Olivia mccann

Cronkite News

PHOENIX – The digital divide is an old problem that requires a new and permanent solution.

The divide, which refers to the gap between people who have access to modern information and communication technologies and those who do not, hinders the education of millions of students who do not. Internet access. The pandemic has made this division much more visible.

But an initiative funded by the CARES 2020 Act will help schools in Phoenix close the gap, and that could pave the way for a nationwide solution.

Phoenix, Phoenix College, and Phoenix Union High School District have teamed up to create Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy, a broadband network designed to provide free Wi-Fi to 250,000 families with students in 13 districts of Phoenix.

Students without internet at home have typically relied on hot spots near schools or sought out Wi-Fi connectivity in libraries, cafes, and other businesses. But in the age of Zoom and Google Classroom, students not only struggled to connect, they also struggled to secure reliable connections.

Finding a solution to internet inequalities was a silver lining to COVID-19, said Phoenix city councilor Laura Pastor, one of the main people behind the digital canopy.

“This problem is not going to go away. What it did… made us all come together and focus and realize that our workforce is shut down because it doesn’t have access to the education it needs, and it will not prepared, ”said Pastor, who represents District 4 in central Phoenix.

The infrastructure will consist of several 80-foot metal poles built near schools, and families will receive a device, similar to a Wi-Fi router, to take home. No configuration is required. All parents need to do to gain access is have a child enrolled full time in school.

The Wi-Fi provided is specially designed for education – students won’t have access to sites like Netflix or Instagram.

Pastor said the city would raise awareness through social media and flyers. They will also teach families how to use the router type device.

“The children will be trained. They will receive a code, ”she said, adding that parents will also learn how to use it.

Students of all levels will be able to access Wi-Fi at home. If successful, the canopy can be widened to include public places, such as a community center.

“If you are in the Phoenix School District area … the plan is for you to have internet access from kindergarten to community college,” said Victoria Farrar, financial director for the Cartwright School District.

Other cities have tried similar solutions, but Phoenix says its use of existing technology makes it more cost effective. The project is also unusual in that local businesses and broadband telecommunications companies are involved.

Farrar said funding for the project comes primarily from a $ 34 million grant Phoenix received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, which includes funding for education.

Officials plan to offset the additional costs through several methods, she said, including an internship program to help maintain the technology.

“We can mitigate some of the costs by having our own in-house technicians… instead of having to go to a very expensive supplier,” said Farrar.

Paul Ross, associate vice president and chief information officer of Phoenix College, said the pandemic had created the “appetite” needed to find a permanent solution to the digital divide, rather than a temporary one, such as the ‘addition of access points.

Determined to find a solution to the digital divide, the team at Phoenix College has been the driving force behind this project. Ross had toyed with the idea of ​​using existing technology for years, but it wasn’t until he started working with Pastor that a plan was hatched to attempt this in Phoenix.

Pastor, a former educator and representative of a low-income community, identified a strong need for technology in her district.

“Rich neighborhoods were able to get the connection they needed,” she said, while “infrastructure in poorer neighborhoods (was) not as compatible or as fast as in other areas.” .

The technology has been tested at several sites, including schools in Alahambra and Cartwright districts. It will slowly roll out to more schools in Phoenix, and the hope is to expand it across cities once they receive the necessary equipment.

“The best thing about it… is that not only will this happen in Phoenix, we’re going to give everyone the manual to do it in every other city in the state, as well as in rural and Native American communities,” Pastor said.

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