Solving the digital divide

By Eric Jay Toll

Phoenix College partners to bring internet access to the community

The Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy (PHX DECC) was deployed to be a replicable network connecting students to schoolwork and virtual classrooms in Phoenix, Arizona.

“It’s the silver lining from the pandemic cloud,” said Laura Pastor, Phoenix city councilwoman, whose district includes many of the city’s digitally underserved neighborhoods. “Children will no longer need to sit in library parking lots or coffee shops to access high-speed broadband to do their homework.”

Covid-19 closed schools, libraries and community centers, sending students to learn from home. Realizing that more than 250,000 families did not have access or adequate internet speeds to go to school or complete assignments, city and education officials clamored for a digital divide solution.

“Overcoming challenges is in Phoenix’s DNA,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said.

In a nearly 18-month effort, the concept, the testing and the reality came together with a scalable digital divide solution connecting students to virtual classrooms, conferences, homework assignments and curated school resources.

A simple charge

It all started at Phoenix College with just four words.

Pastor had a lead role in bringing together the consortium to engineer and deploy the PHX DECC. In her unique position as a city councilwoman in America’s fifth-largest city and employed full-time as the community liaison for Phoenix College, Pastor is also an elected member of the Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board. She leveraged her connections pushing forward a digital divide solution.

“Paul Ross and I were called into (then Phoenix College President Larry Johnson Jr.’s) office. He gave us a simple charge,” she said. “He said, ‘Solve the digital divide.’”

Ross, Phoenix College associate vice president and CIO, came up with the idea of using existing technology and applications to create a digital canopy over a school district connecting students to virtual classrooms, homework assignments and schools’ digital resources over an accessible, no-cost, wireless high-speed intranet.

“I first had the idea in 2016 in Ohio, again in 2017 in Washington, and I couldn’t get any traction on the idea of solving the digital divide with existing technology,” said Ross. “With the coming of the pandemic, this was no longer just something occurring in pockets; the ability to connect was affecting everyone, everywhere.”

Able to tap into the cross-agency resources, Pastor built the collaboration.

“I didn’t know how to solve the digital divide,” she said. “But I knew where to find those who would. I knew the city would have money from the CARES Act, as with the school districts in the college. If everybody contributed, we would have the know-how, the commitment and the money to make it happen.”

Once the challenge of ensuring access to classrooms and education resources was on the table, the walls between the city, education, business and the telecommunications industry disappeared.

“It is in the best interest of the city to make this a sustainable city at the end of the day, so you want to make sure that you have a level playing field for all of your families,” said Christine Mackay, director, Phoenix Community and Economic Development. “That means they all have access to a quality education so that they can find good jobs. That’s really what you want for all of your citizens.”

She said that the telecommunications industry and business community were committed to a long-term solution for all our students’ educational opportunities.

No special consultants, no proprietary hardware; the charge was to make the solution fit maintenance and upkeep within existing school district budgets.

Ross said the key to making it happen was thorough research. And he invested hundreds of hours reading specification sheets and testing off-the-shelf equipment. He had the makings for PHX DECC: free broadband connecting students to schools in a scalable concept and economically efficient solution.

On paper, Ross and Pastor were holding a recipe for a solution to the digital divide.

Micro concept tested with college students

With seed money from the city of Phoenix, Ross put a test installation into play at Phoenix College. Students at the campus participated in the test, taking courses, doing schoolwork and tapping into resources. The microconcept was a resounding success.

In summer 2020, the phase I deployment started.

“We needed to blanket the school districts. I can tell you more about every pole under the (PHX DECC) canopy than anyone,” said Ross. “I walked neighborhoods; I talked to people; I checked out all the locations. I knew this would work.”

The goal was to be ready for the start of the 2021-22 school year. The program went live on September 1 in three school districts.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article online here.

Eric Jay Toll

is the communications manager for the City of Phoenix Community & Economic Development division.

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