An expansion of free Wi-Fi in neighborhoods that had no broadband availability was welcome news to Dallas City Council members Monday, for a city with a severe digital divide.
What is completely common for some parts of the city was unavailable or unaffordable elsewhere when people really needed it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now, new poles in the neighborhood around the Polk Wisdom Library have free Wi-Fi transmitters connected by fiber optic cable to a base at the library.
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To install this neighborhood network and 9 more like it in Dallas, the city used $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief money from the CARES program.
“I think this is some of the best use of the CARES Act dollars that we have made,” council member Casey Thomas said.
Another $2.8 million of federal money paid for 10 more neighborhood networks connected wirelessly to city buildings with Wi-Fi transmitters mounted on new street light poles.
Council member Paula Blackmon said those poles provide an additional benefit.
“Lighting up, we've all been talking about how lighting can help bring our crime numbers down,” Blackmon said.
About 3,200 homes which had no broadband service available can now connect for free with the new equipment.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the need is much greater than that.
Laptops were passed out to the kids who were forced to stay at home, but some had no signal for distance learning.
Most families pay for cell phones with internet connectivity, but phones are not up to school tasks that require computers.
The lack of reliable broadband internet also limited work from home opportunities in those neighborhoods.
“People want to apply for jobs, they’ll have the opportunity to apply from home, as opposed to having to go to the library or somewhere else. And so I think this is a great, great opportunity,” Thomas said.
Universal broadband should have already been available from existing service providers, according to Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman.
“And universal service means in this case, broad band and providing it to all residents of Dallas, not just in selected areas where their profits are the highest. So now, we in government are having to step in to fulfill a need that is supposed to be fulfilled by them,” Kleinman said.
City officials said they are also investigating ways to take a public Wi-Fi network citywide, though it might not be free everywhere.
Dallas Public Works Director Robert Perez said the city is working with Dallas County to consider traffic signal poles and other structures that might support Wi-Fi antennas.
“We’re looking at water towers, anything that is a city owned asset that we could leverage to put this equipment on,” Perez said. “We are researching every asset and every avenue that we have available to help make this work.”
The city-wide project had been under investigation since 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it more urgent.
“Our goal should be to be the most connected city in the country, and I think these pilot projects are a good sign,” council member Jaime Resendez said.
For this step in bridging the Dallas digital divide, the city will work to communicate with these first 3,200 homes that the free service is now available.