Private wireless networks for students $27M piece of COVID-19 ‘resiliency & recovery’ plan

Plan to bridge digital divide for students in up to 50 neighborhoods across 7 school districts

San Antonio working to close the digital divide for students

San Antonio – A $27 million effort to bring in-home internet access to students will be a key part of the COVID-19 Community Resiliency and Recovery Plan San Antonio City Council members are scheduled to vote on come June 4.

One in four San Antonio households don’t have internet access, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The proposed project is meant to close some of that digital divide, which many students had to overcome as they attended classes and worked remotely during stay-at-home orders.

If the city council approves the $191 million resiliency and recovery plan, the city said it plans to help build out private wireless networks in up to 50 neighborhoods that K-12 and college students could access.

“You would see your ISD network available on your list of networks in your home, and you would be able to click that network and log into it exactly as if you were sitting in the school classroom,” explained city Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins.

The process to do that, Hopkins said, includes building out infrastructure between buildings, creating a WiFi or LTE “mesh” over the neighborhoods, and ensuring students have a way to access the network from inside their homes.

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There is no timeline yet for the project, and details are scarce, but the city plans to test the concept first in an area within the Sidney Lanier High School feeder pattern. It would then attempt to replicate the “proof of concept” and build out as many of the neighborhoods as funds permit.

The city’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard said the 50 neighborhoods being considered are spread across the San Antonio, Edgewood, Harlandale, Southside, Judson, Northside, and Northeast Independent School Districts.

While the resiliency and recovery will rely heavily on Coronavirus Relief Fund money and other federal dollars, this portion would be funded exclusively with money from the city’s general fund, according to a city staff presentation.

This proposal comes at a time when the city has had to cope with an expected $198.6 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2020, but city staff said some money was freed up in its budget this year thanks to the CRF money.

Additionally, the $270 million the city received from the CRF must be spent by December 30.

However, the plan also relies on the city being able to balance its budget for fiscal 2021, which will still reflect the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

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About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.