Free Wi-Fi directed to Phoenix school districts to help end the digital divide

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

The gap, which refers to the gap between people who have access to modem ICT and those who do not, hinders the education of millions of students who lack access to the Internet. The pandemic has made this division even more pronounced.

Phoenix College has teamed up with the city and the Phoenix Union High School District to create the Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy, a broadband network designed to provide free Wi-Fi to 250,000 families with students in 13 Phoenix districts. (Photo by Kylie Cochran / Cronkite News)

But an initiative funded under the 2020 CARES Act will help Phoenix schools close the gap, and may pave the way for nationwide reform.

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

Students who don’t have internet at home usually rely on hotspots near schools or look for Wi-Fi at libraries, coffee shops, and other businesses. But in the age of Zoom and Google Classroom, students have not only struggled to get online, they have also struggled to secure reliable connections.

Finding a solution to inequality online has been a silver lining to COVID-19, said Phoenix City Councilwoman Laura Pasteur, one of the key people behind the digital umbrella.

This problem will not go away. said Pasteur, who represents District 4 in central Phoenix.

The infrastructure will consist of several 80-foot metal poles built near schools, and families will be provided with a Wi-Fi router-like device to take home. No setup required. All parents need to do to get to school is to enroll a child full time in school.

The Wi-Fi provided is designed specifically for education – students will not be able to access sites like Netflix or Instagram.

The 80-foot poles erected near the schools will provide a “canopy” for Wi-Fi connectivity. (Photo by Kylie Cochran / Cronkite News)

Pasteur said the city will work to raise awareness through social media and flyers. They will also educate families on how to use a router-like device.

“Kids will be trained. They will receive a code,” adding that parents will also be taught how to use it.

Students of all grade levels will have access to Wi-Fi in their homes. If successful, the canopy may be expanded to include public spaces, such as a community center.

“If you are within the Phoenix Middle School District… the plan is to have an internet connection from preschool all the way through the community college,” said Victoria Farrar, financial director of the Cartwright School District.

Other cities have tried similar solutions, but Phoenix claims that its use of existing technology makes it more cost-effective. The project is also unusual in terms of the participation of local companies and broadband telecommunications companies.

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

She said officials plan to offset the additional costs through several methods, including an in-house training program to help maintain the technology.

“We can reduce some costs by having our in-house technicians…instead of having to bring in a very expensive vendor,” Farrar said.

Paul Ross, associate vice president and chief information officer at Phoenix College, said the pandemic has created the “appetite” needed to find a permanent solution to the digital divide, rather than a temporary solution, such as adding hotspots.

Determined to find a solution to the digital divide, the team at Phoenix College was the driving force behind this project. Ross had been toying with the idea of ​​using existing technology for years, but didn’t start working with Pastor until a plan was made to try it at Phoenix.

Pasteur, a former teacher and representative of a low-income community, identified a strong need for technology in her area.

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

The technology has been tested at several locations, including schools in Al Hamra and Cartwright. It will be slowly rolling out to more Phoenix schools, and the hope is to expand it across cities once they have the necessary equipment.

“The best thing about this…is that it’s not just going to happen in Phoenix, but we’re going to give everyone a guide to doing it in every other city in the state, rural communities and Native American communities,” Pasteur said.

Read more stories from Education on Signals A Z.com.


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