Amid critical need, Fort Worth schools’ project to expand broadband access is delayed

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Fort Worth school officials have pushed back a plan to bring broadband internet service to students in underserved parts of the district.

School officials plan to build towers across the district to provide public wifi access to neighborhoods where many students don’t have high-speed internet service at home. In November, Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner told the Star-Telegram he expected the first towers could be completed in six months if voters approved a property tax increase. But six months later, a district spokesman said last week the project is “currently on a new timeline” following the hiring of a new chief information officer in January.

“The district seeks to ensure the solution deployed to the student community meets and exceeds their educational needs,” said district spokesman Clint Bond.

The delay comes at a time when school districts, public officials and lawmakers are urgently looking for ways to close the so-called homework gap — the gulf in educational opportunity between students who don’t have computers and high-speed internet access at home compared to their peers who do. While school shutdowns due to COVID-19 have thrown the problem into sharper relief, experts say the gap has affected low-income students for years and will continue to be a problem even after all students return to school in person.

Fort Worth school wifi project will keep students connected

District officials declined to make the district’s new chief information officer available for an interview. When the Star-Telegram inquired about reasons for the delay and details about the project’s new timeline, Bond said he was unable to provide information because both he and the district’s senior communications officer were out of the office.

Once the towers are online, students will be able to connect from home to the district’s networks. The district would use the same content filters for its public wifi network as it uses at school, so students wouldn’t be able to access illegal or inappropriate material through the network. Each tower would cover seven square miles and would cost the district about $400,000 to build. The project is being funded with money from the district’s tax ratification election, which voters approved in November.

The plan targets several ZIP codes in east, south and southeast Fort Worth where fewer than a third of students have high-speed internet connections at home: 76104, 76102, 76105, 76115, 76164 and 76103. The district’s plan is one of two projects seeking to expand public wifi in Fort Worth. The city of Fort Worth’s plan uses $5 million in CARES Act funding for free public wifi in the Stop Six, Ash Crescent, North Side, Como and Rosemont neighborhoods. The city plans to install receivers on streetlights, traffic lights and other utilities that will relay wifi from city buildings into the surrounding neighborhoods. School officials have said the two plans are meant to complement each other.

Kevin Gunn, chief technology officer for the city of Fort Worth, said city crews will begin installing wifi relay equipment in the Rosemont neighborhood either this week or next, depending on weather. The city has never undertaken a project like this before, Gunn said, so he expects city officials will learn lessons from the rollout in the Rosemont neighborhood that will make the process go more smoothly in the other four neighborhoods.

Gunn said the city targeted those five neighborhoods for public wifi service because they’re part of the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Strategy and because many households there don’t have broadband service. The city’s goal is to increase access to services like housing and rent assistance, job search assistance and healthcare, he said. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price also places an emphasis on education, he said, so helping students access learning from home is another key part of the project.

Although the city and school district’s projects emerged separately, Gunn said the two have coordinated their efforts at every step to avoid duplicating services and helped each other where it was needed. In a few cases, the city found it couldn’t cover all of the neighborhoods it’s targeting by mounting radio antennas at city-owned buildings like fire stations and community centers, so the district agreed to allow city crews to install equipment on school campuses, as well.

Texas broadband bill would expand access

Texas has more children than any other state without adequate internet service at home, according to a report released in June by the nonprofit Common Sense. About 1.8 million, or 34% of the children in the state, don’t have an adequate connection for distance learning, according to the report.

A bill designed to close gaps in Texas’ broadband coverage is expected to head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk soon. House Bill 5 would create a state broadband office within the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts office. That office would be tasked with creating a statewide map, updated annually, showing where broadband service is and isn’t available. That map would be published on the state comptroller’s website. The bill would also give the state broadband office a year to come up with a plan to bring broadband access to underserved parts of the state.

The bill passed the Senate in late April. It will now go to conference committee, where lawmakers will iron out differences between the House and Senate versions before sending it to Abbott. The governor has made a legislative priority of improving statewide broadband access this year.

Homework gap could become ‘learning chasm’

The bill represents progress for Texas’ efforts to ensure equitable broadband access across the state, said Gaby Rowe, project lead for Operation Connectivity, a broadband expansion partnership among Abbott, the Texas Education Agency and the Dallas school district.

For years, instruction has become more immersive and more multimedia-focused, Rowe said, and more of it takes place outside of school buildings. Even before the pandemic, students who didn’t have broadband service at home didn’t have the same access to supplemental learning as their peers. It’s also more difficult for them to complete and submit homework, get feedback from their teachers and collaborate with their classmates, she said.

When schools shut down at the onset of the pandemic, those problems became a crisis, she said. Students who couldn’t access supplemental learning were suddenly cut off from any learning at all, she said. Districts scrambled to get wifi hotspots and devices to students who needed them, but district officials acknowledged those were an imperfect, emergency solution.

A lack of broadband will continue to hold students back even after they’ve returned to school in person, Rowe said, because they’ll still be cut off from the educational materials they couldn’t access before the pandemic, she said. If the state can’t close gaps in broadband access, the homework gap could turn into “a learning chasm,” she said.

“We need to throw all the tools at it that we possibly can, and that all isn’t going to take place during the school day, in the four walls of the classroom,” she said.

Rowe said she applauds the Fort Worth school district for taking on a project to close the broadband service gap in its own area. That work is “innovative and ingenious,” she said. But it doesn’t solve the larger statewide gap in broadband access, she said. She hopes state officials focus on broader, scale-able solutions that bring service to every student in the state, not just those who live in certain school districts.

Wifi hotspots may be best internet solution for some students

The problem will be no less urgent once all students return to school in person, said Jennifer Harris, state program director for the statewide broadband initiative Connected Nation Texas. During normal times, many students who don’t have broadband connections at home go to public libraries to do their homework, Harris said. That works well enough as long as those libraries are open, she said, but students who work on assignments late into the evening after libraries close have to find somewhere else to go.

“We’ve had students for years and years and years who had to go sit in the Taco Bell parking lot to do their homework,” Harris said.

Efforts like the Fort Worth wifi tower project can be a big piece of the solution to the gaps in broadband access across the state, Harris said. But many cities and school districts may need more than one solution to reach every student, she said. Wifi towers that blanket entire neighborhoods with broadband service may be the best solution for most people in those areas, she said. But that might not work as well for a student who is homeless, or for one who spends a few days per week at her mother’s house, a few days at her father’s house and one or two at a grandparent’s house, she said. For those students, a mobile wifi hotspot like the ones the district passed out at the beginning of the school year might be the best option, she said.

Remote learning students connect from other states, countries

A report released this month by the Consortium for School Networking found that students nationwide were increasingly mobile during remote learning. The report’s findings are based on data collected from 13 school districts representing about 750,000 students, including the Dallas and Aldine school districts in Texas.

“Many students participate in online learning activities outside of the student’s home, including joining from peers’ homes, and even attending classes from other cities, states, and countries,” according to the report.

Districts must ensure that students have a broadband connection at home that’s fast enough to support every child in the household participating in online learning at once, according to the report. The report’s authors recommend districts work with families and internet service providers to replace outdated routers, help families place wifi routers in a spot that will ensure the strongest signal and provide network extenders in areas with poor signals.

Harris said it’s important that efforts to close the digital divide happen in a coordinated way to make sure services don’t duplicate each other. It’s also important that communities and regions understand what problems cause the digital divide in their areas, she said. In some rural areas in west Texas, it’s impossible to get a high-speed internet connection at any price because the infrastructure doesn’t exist, she said. Although there are infrastructure issues in some pockets of urban areas like Fort Worth, the biggest barrier to broadband access in most cities is cost, she said. Families have access to broadband connections, but they can’t afford to subscribe.

“We need to make sure that we’re focusing on the right part of the problem,” she said.

That difference is why it’s important to implement a statewide broadband plan that offers statewide guidance but gives communities and regions the flexibility to plan and coordinate on their own, Harris said. She’s optimistic that the plan the state broadband office eventually develops will put Texas on the path toward closing gaps in service statewide.

“This is the most exciting time for broadband in Texas and in our country that we’ve ever seen,” she said.