When public facilities in Pima County were forced to close to the public as a pandemic precaution, parking lots at county libraries filled with people trying to access a Wi-Fi signal.
“(There is) nothing like a pandemic and the closure of a public library to show how your community does not have access, for whatever reason, to the things that allow them to be productive citizens,” said Michelle Simon, assistant director of support. services for county libraries.
The library spent $200,000 to buy 400 hotspots students can take home to do the remote schoolwork that county school districts have been pivoting to, but the effort exposed a bigger problem. regarding Internet access in Pima County.
“It was this conversation about how much money we as a library system needed to put forward to help this small contingent of members of our community – and additionally, to highlight the fact that many people were hanging out in our parking lots trying to get a bit of our Wi-Fi – really hammered home that our community needs our help,” Simon said.
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The public library and the county’s Department of Information Technology have partnered to form the “Pima County Digital Access Strategic Planning Task Force,” which has created a long-term plan to increase the access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet.
The task force plans to implement part of this vision through an $800,000 contract with Cox Communications to activate 130 wireless hotspots in rural or underserved areas that users can access for free.
The supervisory board was due to vote on approving the contract at its March 15 meeting, but pursued the item until April 5 to receive more information on the location of the trouble spots.
Supervisor Steve Christy, whose district encompasses many rural areas of the county with minimal internet access, said he wants his constituents to have access to their homes instead of relying on hotspots at community centers. .
“It’s not the need, in my view, for additional or better service in libraries and community centers,” he said. “It’s on the rooftops, it gets them into people’s homes. And the plan, while preliminary, didn’t seem to address that at all.
Dan Hunt, chief information officer for Pima County, said getting internet access to every home is a “lofty goal,” but it’s one the task force is working to achieve.
“People don’t understand that it’s not a 12 month process. It’s an eight or 10-year process in a community the size of Tucson,” he said. “Tucson is a big part of Pima County, but there’s a lot of Pima County that isn’t Tucson either.”
The Pima County Digital Access Plan includes short, medium, and long-term goals through fiscal year 2025.
But by the end of September this year, the goal is to increase the number of publicly accessible hotspots by 10 sites in each county district. By the end of the year, the task force hopes to create a plan to address digital literacy gaps and complete a community needs assessment.
“Through this plan and the goals that we’ve set, if you look at the plan, the short-term goal, what broadband infrastructure talks about, is to get more connectivity into households by a certain point,” Simon said. noted. “That’s where this Cox contract comes in.”
About 88% of county residents had a broadband internet subscription in 2020, according to U.S. Census data. But connectivity can be spotty in rural areas which internet service providers often overlook when building fiber optic internet.
When assessing hotspot areas under the Cox contact, the Digital Access Task Force looked for “places that were community gathering points,” Hunt said, such as the Picture Rocks Community Center and the Three Points Veterans Memorial neighborhood park.
If the Board of Supervisors approves the contract, the county will set up 130 external access points in underserved rural areas that residents can access with a connection provided by the library.
There are 80 hotspots in the Tucson Metro that are already available to Cox customers away from home.
“Now the library is becoming a Cox client on behalf of the residents of the county, to be able to say that all of these access points are now available to you, here’s the password,” Hunt said.
But the new hotspots are just the beginning of the task force’s efforts. There are four sub-committees dedicated to different aspects of the digital access plan, including financing and procurement, digital literacy, digital access and broadband infrastructure.
“We’re in the nascent stages,” Simon said. “We’re trying to put the pieces in place to activate everything and let everyone know.”
Internet access at home
The library is paying for the Cox contract through emergency connectivity funds the federal government has provided to schools and libraries, and Simon expects about $200,000 in reimbursement funds for the first year of the effort. county digital expansion.
But as with any one-time disbursement of federal funds, the challenge is to ensure that the programs funded by the money are sustainable.
“Can we pay them forever? We’ll have to figure all that out,” Hunt said. “We basically have a three-year federal funding mechanism that we jumped on board because it was available to us and allowed us to meet short-term goals.”
But longer-term goals, which could include building fiber optic networks so underserved areas can access the internet from home, could be more expensive.
Hunt said the county applied for a $12.5 million grant from the Arizona Commerce Authority to bring fiber optic networks to 1,300 to 1,500 households in the Avra Valley and Corona areas of Tucson.
“They’re in places where an ISP could never afford to build it because their payback is way too long,” he said.
Simon said internet access in homes is also partially achieved by helping people get their own internet subscriptions. There are several government subsidies for Internet access, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounted broadband to low-income households.
“If there’s an area of town that has low adoption rates, but the infrastructure is there, that’s where the other piece is, where we can help them figure out how to access Internet with what’s free and then show them the Affordable Connectivity Program,” Simon said. “Now they participate on their own, they don’t need our help to do that anymore.
But those who don’t have internet access can’t take advantage of county programs if they don’t know about them.
“Here is this financing mechanism to allow people to get their broadband at a much lower cost than what they are currently paying. And what have we done as a federal government and all these companies? We posted it on the internet,” Hunt said. “They don’t have laptops, they don’t have connectivity, they can’t even afford to understand, how do I deal with this thing?”
The task force is waiting for the council to approve the Cox contract, then plans to put in place an awareness campaign to inform residents who don’t have internet access of their options for getting online. If the contract is approved, Simon said his team hopes to have the trouble spots in place by May.
“We can’t just promote it online. If you’re trying to get people to connect to it who aren’t online, you have to have signs somewhere, you have to have pieces of paper somewhere. So you can see this stuff popping up in the community,” Simon said. “But it’s a solid plan, it’s not just about the Cox contract.”
Contact journalist Nicole Ludden at [email protected]