The internet is a tool people can use to reach their full potential, says Jaime Resendez, vice chair of the Dallas City Council's Workforce, Education and Equity Committee. It has become vital to employment and education. But some areas of Dallas don’t have adequate access to this important tool, and the pandemic has widened this digital divide, Resendez says.
“If a person does not have access to the internet, they’re being left behind, even more so during this pandemic,” he says.
About 42 percent of Dallas households lack a fixed internet connection, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. This gives Dallas the worst household connection rate among the country’s 10 largest cities.
Last year, the bank hosted a Digital Inclusion Summit where representatives from the bank, the city, Dallas College (then the Dallas County Community College District) and many others gathered to talk about ways to tackle these shortfalls. Susan Hoff, chief impact and strategy officer for United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, shared the experience of one of her clients that illustrates the importance of internet access.
“One mom was able to connect to a program and got middle-skills job training,” Hoff said at the summit. “She progressed from a low-level job at Parkland Hospital into a career path.” Eventually, Hoff’s client began earning beyond what she needed for her family. Without adequate access to the internet, this wouldn’t have been possible, Hoff said. Too many families face a barrier like this, she said.
Francella Ochillo of Next Century Cities in Washington, D.C., one of the speakers at the summit, said if you compare two cities, one with high rates of connectivity and one without, those with ubiquitous connectivity will have better educational outcomes, lower unemployment and higher home values. The disconnected community will be blocked from benefits emerging from new technologies, improved education, health and mobility for its residents, she said.
In May, Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Education Agency and DISD launched Operation Connectivity, an initiative to help deliver internet and device solutions to school districts, families and students across the state. The initiative originally began in Dallas to deal with the lack of access to high-speed internet and digital devices that DISD students face even more during the pandemic.
Ten million dollars in COVID-19 relief funds have been allocated to close this digital gap. The Workforce, Education and Equity Committee has laid out some short term, mid-term and long-term goals working toward this effort.
The city recently installed external wireless access points at the Prairie Creek, Lancaster-Kiest, Highland Hills and Dallas West library branches. Nine hundred hotspots have been loaned out by Dallas Library and 2,100 more have been requested in their 2021 fiscal year budget.
Additionally, the city is working on getting more information on where their efforts need to be focused. This week the City Council will weigh in on a cost-sharing interlocal agreement with Dallas Independent School District to pay for a feasibility study looking into developing a network to connect students in their homes.
At an Aug. 10 Workforce, Education and Equity Committee meeting, councilmember Lee Kleinman said some efforts to expand connectivity have left out some communities in Dallas. Companies like AT&T, Verizon, Crown Castle, Sprint, Extenet and T-Mobile are all deploying small cell equipment to create a network in the city. This equipment is being installed at fixed locations, like light poles, to enable wireless communication between the user equipment and a communications network.
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As of April last year, the city had approved 966 permits for small cell sites. But, Kleinman said that these sites are not being equally deployed throughout the city. Kleinman said that racially diverse and lower-income communities are being ignored by the major communications companies deploying this equipment. By doing so, these companies are furthering institutional racism.
Kleinman commended AT&T for providing 10,000 hotspots to DISD but said these hotspots are just paperweights for students in low-connected areas. He said it is shameful that Dallas hosts AT&T, but still has a digital divide.
Resendez says he likes to get things done as quickly as possible, but these things take time.
"You just have to be cautious and careful sometimes because you want things to be done right," Resendez said. "So, I'm just respecting what that staff needs to do and seeing what happens."