Pima County Seeks Opportunities to Expand Broadband | Local News

From telehealth to distance education to job applications, the internet has become central to so many of our lives today that it’s easy to forget that some people don’t have the same access. .

But millions of Americans — 42.8 million, by some estimates — experience inequality on the internet.

In its January 2021 broadband rollout report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that in 2019, the number of Americans without access fell by more than 20%, but the digital divide persists.

Bolstered by the pandemic, which has moved even more of our lives online, closing remaining access gaps has become a priority for the White House and for local governments, including Pima County.

Definition of “broadband”

The FCC – the agency responsible for overseeing Internet access in the United States – defines high-speed Internet as a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (mpbs) (the speed at which you receive data, such as loading a web page) and a download speed of 3 mbps (speed data is sent from a smaller digital device to a server, such as saving photos to the cloud).

The discrepancies are largely due to the way the FCC collects coverage information, which allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to self-report how many people they reach. If the company tells the FCC that a household in a given census tract has broadband access, the FCC rounds up that number, essentially marking the entire census block as having broadband.

BroadbandNow researchers found that these undercounts end up having a disproportionate impact on rural and tribal communities, which – along with low-income households, older populations and people of color – are already more likely to have no access to a computer and a broadband connection, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center.

Despite their flaws, FCC data still provides the foundation upon which millions of dollars in federal grant and loan programs are built. Distributing funds responsibly therefore comes down to knowing the communities in need, where underserved voters live, and the specific challenges they face in places like Pima County.

The need

Providing communities with equitable access to technology has long been a core value of the library system, says Michelle Simon, assistant director of support services for Pima County Public Libraries.

“As our world moves towards an online presence, it puts people who don’t have this technology at a disadvantage at a disadvantage, and the library has been and continues to be a resource for those people to be productive citizens, to be able to really participate at all levels of our society,” she said.

The importance of its digital offerings became a “bright, burning white spotlight” for library systems when COVID-19 hit, Simon said, and forced Pima County libraries to close from March to May. 2020.

“Many people have lost access to the technology they need to go to school, to file documents with the Department of Economic Security, to apply for jobs and complete applications, even to access critical public health information — just a whole host of things,” she said.

For some children, the transition to distance education during the pandemic has been particularly difficult. About 15 million students in the United States lacked internet connections or adequate devices to continue their learning remotely, worsening the “homework divide” between school-aged children with and without high-speed internet at home.

As funds from the American Rescue Plan Act were released, along with special allocations for schools and libraries, Simon knew she wanted to take this opportunity to implement better broadband support.

Working with Dan Hunt, Director of Pima County’s Department of Information Technology, the county purchased 400 access points to provide students in rural communities and set up external access points in libraries to better serve people outside the building.

The duo now co-chair a strategic planning task force focused on addressing broadband inequity in Pima County, and already have a number of projects underway.

This spring, in partnership with Cox Communications, they plan to connect more than 200 “City Hotspots” that will bring high-speed access to even more community centers, health centers and parks, including Green Valley’s Canoa Preserve.

More funding, hope

For the past two years, Diane Diamond has worked with Connect Our Students to bridge the “homework gap” for students in the Sahuarita Unified and Continental Elementary school districts by establishing or improving their home Internet connections.

One of the main issues she sees in discussions of broadband expansion concerns the locations of planned infrastructure investments. The Arizona Commerce Authority’s Statewide Broadband Middle-Mile Strategic Plan, for example, will increase broadband connectivity to 141 miles of Interstate 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix, and 60 miles of I-19 between Tucson and Nogales, by early 2023.

According to the project’s website, the plan identified 796,004 households statewide that are either unserved or underserved, and about 91% of them are within five miles of highways and state roads. . The state’s efforts on I-17 and I-19 will affect approximately 148,305 of those households, but, as Diamond noted, will still not address some of the areas in need.

“If the infrastructure comes, it goes down I-19. It doesn’t go all the way to Elephant Head. It’s not right at the Sopori School, and there’s a real need for students in those areas to have that connection, to have that opportunity,” Diamond said.

“And it’s not just students who need it, it’s whole families who every week have to choose between rent and food, and that’s where I think there’s a hole in that opportunity. We are trying to bring these students to a better place than they are now, and we know that will make a big difference in this community,” she said.

One of the obstacles for ISPs increasing Internet access in these more rural and underserved areas is that it hurts their bottom line – the revenue generated from these areas is sometimes not enough to offset the high cost of construction. infrastructure.

The influx of funding and support has helped spark conversations and partnerships between local municipalities, schools, libraries and ISPs that otherwise might not have happened, Hunt said, which will ultimately help maximize the benefits of these programs in the community.

“With that, we’ve really been able to bring it all together, and together we’re able to partner to start bringing this into new areas,” Hunt said.

“We are working on proposals to bring high-speed fiber to the town of Ajo, for the library and the school district, as well as for the Arivaca school district. These are things that no one could afford to do before, that no vendor would ever do. But we have an opportunity right now to make a huge impact in these areas.

In their latest grant application, Pima County Public Libraries and Cox Communications have partnered for a $12.5 million grant through the Arizona Commerce Authority to bring fiber optic connections to broadband to homes in the Corona areas of Tucson and Altar Valley. They hope to have an answer by June 30.

Other challenges

But like all good things, Hunt said those efforts will take time.

“People think when you start building a fiber house in 12 or 18 months they’ll have it, but to get to every house in the green valley, in Sahuarita, in the great areas of Tucson, it’s a 6 a 10-year project to get this all done,” he said.

“So we’re working with our board and the city council now to start saying, how are we going to do this? Not everyone can be on the front line, but we’re going to have to have a plan and a concerted effort on what we’re going to do. »

One of the first goals of the County Strategic Planning Task Force will be to conduct an in-depth needs analysis in Pima County using a combination of data from the U.S. Census, Arizona Commerce Authority, federal government and ISPs themselves.

Hunt said the strategic planning task force aims to complete the community needs assessment and perform a gap analysis by the end of this year.

But even in areas of Pima County where broadband is available, low adoption rates remain a barrier to closing the digital divide. Getting to the root of these issues, Simon said, will require nearly equal focus on affordability and consumer engagement in digital literacy.

“That’s why this effort is going to have such an impact. It really requires a partnership between internet service providers, the library working to engage community organizations on digital literacy, and also our group identifying the best way to get people to access the technology they need,” said she declared.

“Really, our ultimate goal is for every person in Pima County to have internet access, in their homes, with the devices they need to be productive,” Simon said.

“But in the medium term,” Hunt added, “we look at all these places that are underserved and say, what’s the fastest way to get something there – even if it’s just a interim measure – and how can we get it done?”

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

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