As our society becomes more technologically advanced, the digital divide becomes an increasing concern. As early as 2014, the City of McAllen began looking at options to close this gap.
“Our low-income neighborhoods never had cable TV, no less broadband and Wi-Fi. We saw kids at night going out in the dark to fast food places with Wi-Fi and going to some city parks,” former Mayor Jim Darling said. “Kids would sit outside school buildings after they were closed trying to get connected.”
COVID-19 made the digital divide an issue nationwide, and communities were forced to address the issue in order for children to attend school virtually and parents to work from home. McAllen ISD issued hot spots to allow students to connect to the internet.
“When the district gave us hot spots, our parents were advised that there was an option for them to have free connectivity at home,” said Venessa Lane, Parent and Family Engagement Specialist with McAllen ISD. “Once the devices went out, student work started coming in, attendance went up, and kids were getting connected to their teacher on a daily basis.”
The hot spots got the district through the end of the school year at the beginning of the pandemic. During the summer of 2020, the City of McAllen invested $3.1 million of CARES Act funding to implement its dream of closing the digital divide within the city. With the help of Frontera Consulting, they installed 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots. They expanded the City’s fiber network to the water towers where technology from Cambium Networks converts the fiber connection to Wi-Fi signals and transmits them to the hot spots on utility poles. The network provides free internet access to approximately 16,000 homes, 43% of student households. Students who do not have access to the free internet or another connection can still get a Wi-Fi device from McAllen ISD.
“We’re putting children in a position to excel academically, regardless of the challenges they face,” said Dr. J.A. Gonzalez, superintendent at McAllen ISD. “A successful broadband network is like gold to us.”
McAllen’s free internet earned the City of McAllen, McAllen ISD, and Frontera Consulting the Connectivity Hero Award from Cambium Networks for the 3rd Quarter of 2020. As other cities look for ways to address the digital divide, McAllen has become a model to consider. One thing pointed out in the McAllen model is the cooperation between the school district and the City.
“I think if government doesn’t play a leadership role, it’s either not going to happen, or it’s going to happen very slowly,” said Clint Vince, head of the Smart Cities and Connected Communities Initiative.
McAllen’s free internet is available to the public. Maintenance of the project is now part of the McAllen City budget.
“The Wi-Fi hot spots are permanent,” said Xochitl Mora, Director of Communication for the City of McAllen. “As of now, the City of McAllen does not have any plans to add additional hot spots.”