Expanding Internet access for those without reliable service remains a daunting logistical obstacle for many cities across the country.
To help close this digital divide, Insight Enterprises recently announced a partnership with the city of Tucson, Ariz., where more than 32,000 homes still lack reliable Internet access needed for things like remote work and virtual learning.
When the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need to bolster connectivity last year, city leaders began discussing a city Wi-Fi expansion plan. Tucson city officials voted in August 2020 to use $4.4 million of federal CARES Act funds for its Community Wireless Program, which aims to provide service and routers to eligible residents.
Tucson CIO Collin Boyce said the program and partnership are part of ongoing efforts to provide a municipally-managed broadband system and devices to residents who need service the most.
“We initially talked about doing community Wi-Fi, and we pivoted to LTE and pulled in two providers — JMA [Wireless] and Insight — to help with the implementation of the product,” Boyce said, adding that several residents have already been provided with a durable “ruggedized device” similar to many basic hot spot devices.
The need for a uniform city plan was perhaps most apparent when Tucson Unified School District began distributing devices needed for virtual learning. The problem was that not all of those devices worked everywhere, which caused headaches for officials and families.
“They were buying devices, and they went with Verizon, but Verizon’s reception isn’t everywhere. Then they started to buy T-Mobile devices, and T-Mobile isn’t everywhere, so they went to AT&T,” he said.
“By addressing areas that have the highest need, we can consolidate the school districts to just us being that one provider so they no longer have to bounce between three providers in order to cover the gamut,” he added. “They will no longer have to deal with that nightmare scenario.”
Boyce said devices will be distributed to students in need with the help of the tech company. In the coming months, Boyce said, thousands more residents will have reliable Internet access.
“It’s probably the largest partnership since I’ve been in government with the local school district and the municipal government,” Boyce said. “Today, we’re slating around 5,000 devices we want to get out into the community.”
According to the Rand Corporation, approximately 20 percent of school districts “have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Meanwhile, many rural and underserved families still go without reliable service.
Boyce served as Lansing, Mich.'s CIO until 2019, where he said there’s a growing demand for virtual learning options. He thinks virtual and hybrid learning models will likely expand “over the next two to three years," making universal connectivity vital.