Audra Brown stands on her front porch holding her 2-year-old granddaughter Toya. Her four grandsons are inside their home in the Buckeye Trail public housing community in South Dallas.
“They are playing on their tablets,” Brown said. “Just some games that the tablet came with.”
In the spring when COVID-19 was spreading, the boys’ school, JJ Rhoads Learning Center, pivoted to virtual learning. Brown didn’t want her grandsons to get behind in school, so she started paying $46 a month to AT&T for broadband — but she couldn’t afford to keep it up.
“I got behind on a couple of bills so I feel like the internet can hold off,” Brown explains. “We pay lights and rent and I don’t want to get behind on nothing.”
Hot Spots: A Temporary Fix
JJ Rhoads Principal Chandra Macklin said almost all her students are from low-income backgrounds. She understands that internet access is often a luxury that most families in her school can’t afford — but now it’s turned into a necessity.
Her students have made huge advances in the last two years and she doesn’t want them to regress. So in the spring, she made sure her families knew to pick up portable hot spots. These are small devices that students can use to connect to the internet from home.
“Connectivity is important now. This is how we communicate,” Macklin said. Adding some teachers have even gone to families’ homes to help parents get online, whatever it takes to make sure students are still learning.
“I didn’t know how to use this stuff so I called the school and there was always someone there who could help me,” Brown said.
Macklin said she’s thankful that the school district was prepared with hots pots so her students could get online from home.
“I will say that I’m grateful for our superintendent and his foresight and the way that he sees things,” Macklin said. “How he projects to the future about what’s going to be needed.”
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said when COVID-19 started spreading, he had to make sure he could get his students online quickly. Hot spots were the fastest way to do that. But he wants a more permanent solution to the lack of internet access for Dallas ISD students — particularly those in South Dallas.
“The same places that don’t have broadband are the same places that don’t have a Starbucks. They don’t have a grocery store,” Hinojosa said. “It’s the same places where you have high crime rates. So, all of these things are tied together.”
Texas state Senator Royce West said this isn’t a new problem.
“This issue has been going on for well over 20 years,” West said. “When you begin to overlap the census tracts that have the highest incidence of poverty, unemployment, criminal justice related issues, there’s a positive correlation between the two.”
West said the lack of proper infrastructure in Dallas’ southern sector limits people’s access — and their potential.
“The fact is that you cannot function in this world anymore without connectivity,” he said.
A Permanent Solution
Jordana Barton works for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Like millions of Americans, she started working full time from home when COVID-19 hit.
” I was working on my virtual private network of the Fed,” Barton explained. “I get a computer and access to the virtual private network through my little code that I put in. And you know, that’s how I access the internet.”
As she put in her code one spring morning, she had an “a-ha” moment. For years, she had been studying the digital divide and its impact on low income communities in Texas. Now, because of the pandemic, her work was getting more attention. Cities were frantically searching for solutions as the need for reliable internet access became essential especially when it came to virtual learning.
“I was no longer having to explain that this is a problem,” Barton said. “So, I was working on my virtual private network and I said, why don’t we give this to students? It is an enterprising solution. Why should it only be businesses that get this opportunity?”
The Fed, like a lot of big companies, has its own private wireless network, connecting employees to a central tower. The signal travels — using public infrastructure — from the tower to other contact points, until it reaches the employee’s home.
The 2015 Dallas ISD school bond made sure all Dallas ISD schools had wireless connections inside schools. The idea would be to take that same signal and send it to a student’s home.
Pinkston high school could put an antenna on top its roof and transmit broadband signals to household receivers. A student can then put a code into her laptop and sign on to the network from home.
“You’re investing in this one-time as far as the capital expense. It’s a one-time cost,” Barton explained. “And you are paying for it with Cares Act or philanthropic funds to solve this huge gaping problem.”
The CARES Act gave state and local governments money to cover costs related to Covid-19 between March and December of this year.
In June, San Antonio was the first city in Texas to adopt Barton’s plan. The City Council approved $27 million to connect 20,000 students in low-income zip codes to their school districts, community colleges and universities using private wireless networks.
Dallas is following in San Antonio’s footsteps.
“This is a rare moment in time and no one expected it, but I have been so inspired.” Dottie Smith said. She co-chairs the coalition Internet for All and is president of the education nonprofit Commit. She’s been working with Barton and 40 different leaders across nine school districts, nonprofits, and city and state governments. The coalition also includes local telecommunication and Internet providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Spectrum — who will potentially benefit from private wireless networks because they would get a large contract with a guaranteed paid bill.
“We are hoping that providers will be able to bring down the cost while keeping broadband speed high enough to allow families to access all of the learning experiences that they need,” Smith said.
Barton said it’s public-private partnership benefits the community.
“You create a win-win for everybody,” Barton said, “The Internet Service Provider gets more business. The school district gets an affordable shared kind of rate. We public entities get the best rates.”
How Do You Pay For It?
The Dallas city council and DISD school board approved CNC energy firm to create a countrywide telecommunications and engineering plan last month. Hinojosa said the goal is to create long-term county-wide infrastructure to ensure that all students and families have internet access in their homes for good.
The city is contributing about $10 million from their CARES Act funds.
Hinojosa said the district has budgeted $40 million.
“We have a very healthy reserve,” Hinojosa said. “We could take it out of our savings account. There may be some state dollars.”
He is hoping the federal government will also help him and other school districts. He and other city leaders want E-rate money that the Federal Communications Commission distributes to cities, school districts, hospitals and libraries for broadband infrastructure to include families who want to connect to the internet.
Districts rely on e-rate money to fund their internet connectivity work. At the start of the pandemic, the FCC relaxed some of the rules for coverage. But that change hasn’t been made permanent despite, pressure from school districts.
“And, then there’s the Hero’s Act which has a lot of infrastructure money in it,” Hinojosa said. Although, he admits this bill, as well as a couple of others focused on internet infrastructure, are stuck in the Senate.
He said there’s also money earmarked in the 2020 bond package should voters approve it.
“We have multiple financing solutions just in case one of these does not go our way,” Hinojosa said. “This is extremely important. We don’t know when this pandemic is going to be over. There are some areas that are very underserved with broadband, most of it’s in southern Dallas. Once you connect them, they will have access to telehealth and they can also have access to applying for a job. So, this is a multi-tiered solution for the long-term.”
Maybe that’s why Hinojosa is focused on the coalition to help solve this decades old problem.
“When you have the county, the city, nonprofits, you have these entities involved — then it is a greater solution,” Hinojosa said. “It’s just like having water and electricity, so, that’s why this long-term solution is important and that’s why we really put a lot of eggs in that basket.”
If all goes as planned, Hinojosa said the district will pilot private virtual networks at four Dallas high schools in October.
This story was produced through a collaborative partnership between KERA and Dallas Free Press.