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Efforts To Expand Internet Access In Dallas Are Underway. Here's How It's Going & What's Next.

Guadalupe Alvarez, 24, grabs a school-sponsored laptop over the plexiglass. Alvarez said she was supposed to pick up two laptops from Dunbar Elementary School, but one of her children were not assigned to one.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA
The city of Dallas and Dallas independent school district has been distributing laptops and hotspots to families who need them for online learning. Dallas resident Guadalupe Alvarez, 24, pick-up a school-sponsored laptop for her child in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city is looking at recommendations to ensure equitable internet access.

As the start of the school year approaches, City of Dallas leaders want to make sure there's enough being done to bridge the digital divide for students.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for equitable internet access across the city.

And with worries of the highly contagious delta variant could lead to more online learning, city officials are reevaluating their Broadband & Digital Equity Strategic Plan.

“Bridging the digital divide in the city is a priority,” Liz Cedillo-Pereira, the city's chief of equity and inclusion told the city council this week.

Cedillo-Pereira and her team gave the council an update on how efforts are going and what are the city’s next steps.

How big is the digital divide in Dallas?

Genesis Gavino, the resilience officer for the city said lack of internet access is disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities.

“Thirty-two percent of Black and 27% of Hispanic households lack internet access compared to only 6% of white households,” she said.

This poses a problem because access to the internet is critical for paying bills, making medical appointments and participating in online school.

According to the city some of the zip codes with the least access to the internet include: 75216 with 49.73% of households without Internet; 75241 with 46.02%; 75210 with 41.63%;75237 with 40.99% and 75217 with 40.37%. These five zip codes are located in the southern sector of the city.

City officials also found that Hispanic households are five times likely to lack internet access in Dallas. Gavino said this is why they are focusing the city’s internet plan on equity.

 Plexiglass and six feet of distance between each desk keep students socially distant in Abigail Boyett's third grade classroom.
Alejandra Casas
Plexiglass and six feet of distance between each desk keep students socially distant in Abigail Boyett's third grade classroom.

What is the city of Dallas doing to ensure internet for all?

In 2020, the City of Dallas spent $8.8 million of CARES Act Funding to fund to short, medium and long term initiatives to bridge the digital divide.

Part of the funding was used to commission the Broadband and Digital Equity Strategic Plan. That plan included a partnership with Dallas Independent School district and a study conducted by CTC Technology & Energy to identify digital equity challenges and broadband gaps in the city.

The study found that the biggest obstacle to high-speed internet to meet student’s needs is affordability. It also found inconsistent investment of broadband infrastructure throughout the city.

“Lower-income households lack service at a much higher rate than the overall population,” Cedillo-Pereira said.

The team also launched Internet for Dallas, which includes over 40 organizations, business and nonprofits that the city and DISD have collaborated with on several connectivity initiatives. The coalition focuses on addressing four main issues: access to internet, affordability, having devices and teaching digital skills. Last year, they were able to serve approximately 40,000 students, but are now looking for more permanent solutions.

In addition, a Digital Navigators Program was launched, which aimed to help serve low income Dallasites impacted by COVID- 19. Families were able to apply last December.

“Areas with higher poverty often have lower network investment and low-investment areas overlap neighborhoods with low computer ownership,” Joanne Hovis, president of the consulting company CTC Technology & Energy said.

The city also used an existing Streetlight Pilot, which are LED street light utility poles that are a source to public WiFi and expanded the services.

Lastly, there was the Dallas Public Library Hotspot and Laptop Program, which made it easier for residents who need computer access by bundling laptops with hotspots to be borrowed using library cards. Close to 4,000 hotspots have been distributed, according to the city.

08182020-tech school-KC-2.jpg
Keren Carrión
A school administrator at Dunbar Elementary School hands a school-sponsored laptop to a parent over the plexiglass walls in the school's cafeteria, on August 18. 2020.

What are the city’s next steps to expanding broadband?

Hovis offered many recommendations to city leaders this week.

The first suggested the city leverage existing federal and state programs to fill gaps in the neighborhoods most affected by the pandemic.

Another recommendation is investing and building a publicly-owned fiber-optic infrastructure that connects city buildings and is routed strategically to reach areas with low broadband investment. According to cost predictions a 100-mile Fiber Ring would cost the city approximately $13.5 million.

The third recommendation suggests extending the Dallas ISD's private cellular network and use schools to spread wireless networks to more neighborhoods. This option would be a shared network between the city and DISD, and they would share costs.

“This would be a free product that would be offered to those who cannot afford to pay,” Hovis said.

In March of this year, President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. From that recovery funding, the City of Dallas will receive a total of $355.4 million. City manager T.C. Boradnax’s proposed setting aside $43 million to help with these efforts, but the city council will decide when and how to spend the money in September.

“It really is a remarkable moment in ways that we did not anticipate," Hovis said. "The availability of funding and the attention nationally to this issuein addressing the digital divide makes this a moment unlike any I have ever experienced.”

Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at amartinez@kera.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.

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