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Up to 2,400 West Side students currently without internet access at home could have it by December under San Antonio’s Connected Beyond the Classroom program, the city’s Office of Innovation said Tuesday.
The effort to bridge the digital divide for students in underserved areas — which became a crisis spawned by the need for remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic — will eventually provide internet access to up to 20,000 students at no cost, Brian Dillard, the city’s chief innovation officer, told a City Council committee.
About one-fifth of San Antonio households with children don’t have ready access to the internet, a survey conducted earlier this year found. The city invested $27.3 million from its general fund to address the problem as part of its coronavirus resiliency and recovery plan.
On ExpressNews.com: How San Antonio plans to tackle the digital divide, expand broadband internet
After the pandemic forced schoolchildren from their desks to learn through their screens, school districts distributed computers and other devices by the tens of thousands in the weeks before the school year started in August amid uncertainty about the pace and scale of campus reopenings. With significant numbers of students still learning at home, connectivity remains a major stumbling block.
About 81 percent of the city has broadband internet, according to the Digital Inclusion Survey and Assessment, with gaps in access occurring largely within Council Districts 1 through 5. District 5 had the lowest proportion, with access at 62 percent.
The project is working to increase it in 24 neighborhoods in the San Antonio Independent School District, as well as eight in Edgewod ISD, two in Harlandale ISD, three in South San Antonio ISD, four in Southwest ISD, one in Judson ISD, three in North East ISD and five in Northside ISD.
“The City of San Antonio is not becoming an internet service provider,” but it is building a fiber and wireless infrastructure to provide a private network throughout those neighborhoods, Dillard told the council’s Innovation and Technology Committee.
The Office of Innovation will start installing routers and antennas this month until December in six neighborhoods — a 16-square-mile area — on the West Side near Lanier High School to test the program. Installation for the remaining neighborhoods will take place from January to September 2021.
“We’re not just providing for kids to be able to do fun stuff at home with their computers, right? Or to play with iPads and tablets,” District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez said.
“We’re, in essence, bringing an essential service to kids who have no access to this,” he said. “And without the access to that, well, they fall further and further and further into the cracks, making it much more difficult for all of us to pull them out.”
Students will log in through their district’s network and go through its firewall as if they were using a campus computer.
Though installation and operating costs for the program are covered for a year, a funding source has not been secured for the future. Some funds could come from the city budget to keep internet connectivity going in these homes, Dillard said, but “definitely not all of it.”
“That’s a collective effort,” he said, hoping to speak with school districts, public agencies and state and federal entities once the pilot program is complete.
Families wishing to get internet service who may not have the means should contact their school district to be considered for the program, Dillard said.