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Phoenix Deploys Wi-Fi Canopy To Close Digital Divide For Students

Phoenix says it’s found a long-term solution to close the digital divide for students. On Wednesday, three school districts — Alhambra Elementary, Cartwright Elementary and Phoenix Union High School — will become the first to benefit.

The digital divide isn’t just about whether someone can afford high-speed internet service. It’s also about aging or absent infrastructure, something Victoria Farrar, chief financial officer for the Cartwright District in west Phoenix said they’ve experienced.

“Just the quality of the connection and the stability of the connection’s been an issue as well,” she said.

Phoenix College figured out a way to use existing technology to provide a Wi-Fi canopy for students to access free, secure high-speed connections for virtual classrooms, teacher conferences, homework assignments and more.

The city used $12 million in federal relief funds to seed the project called the Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy (PHX DECC). Councilwoman Laura Pastor, who is a governing board member of Phoenix Union High School District and community relations director at Phoenix College, gathered people to work on a solution.

“It’s the silver lining from the pandemic cloud,” she said in a statement. “Children will no longer need to sit in library parking lots or coffee shops to access high-speed broadband to do their homework.”

"This is a long-term technology solution." — Christine Mackay

“This is not a short-term pandemic solution, this is a long-term technology solution,” said Phoenix Economic Development Director Christine Mackay.

She said the project opened her eyes to how deep the divide is. Mackay said more than half of students in the Phoenix Union District don’t have online access at home.

→  More About How Phoenix's New Wi-Fi Canopy Delivers Internet To Students

“That should alarm everybody whether you’re looking for a future workforce, whether we’re trying to attract companies, and we’re trying to educate students,” she said.

The canopy project should cover 250,000 families, including about 15,000 students in Farrar’s district.

"It will mean that the parents won’t have to struggle knowing that their children are safe online." — Victoria Farrar

“It will mean that they don’t have to see their families struggle to provide internet resources. It will mean that the parents won’t have to struggle knowing that their children are safe online,” she said. “It’ll mean that we will able to fully implement our textbook resources and instructional content online without having to worry about paying an internet service provider or worrying if that connection is going to get disrupted because somebody else is using it for something else.”

According to a city news release, telecommunications companies generally oppose cities and schools offering broadband services but the Southwest Telecommunications Association is supporting the effort.

“We don’t want to see government entities competing with private businesses; this system does not compete,” said Susan Bitter Smith, executive director of the Southwest Cable Communications Association. “The Association understood the communities’ needs and the (PHX DECC)’s unique connection of student to classroom is giving underserved communities they help they need.”

Here’s a breakdown of funding sources for the $34 million project:

  • City of Phoenix, $12 million
  • Phoenix College, $100,000
  • Phoenix Union High School District, $2 million
  • Alhambra Elementary District, $150,000
  • Cartwright Elementary District, $150,000

Phoenix expects grant money and contributions from the business community to fund the difference.
EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to the Maricopa County Community College District.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.