(TNS) — As New Orleans students prepare for a school year that will start with lessons conducted over the internet instead of in a classroom, city officials said Wednesday they are pursuing a plan that could eventually provide wireless internet service across the city.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration is planning to roll out a pilot program in the next 90 days that would offer WiFi service in a park or recreation facility, according to Jonathan Rhodes, director of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Utilities, as part of a test aimed at evaluating the feasibility of a citywide network.
Even if successful, the city’s plan won’t be in place in time for students this year. But the pilot could serve as a template for a program that could be in place a year later, Rhodes said.
“The most important thing is how can we bridge the digital divide,” said Rhodes on Wednesday. “We know that more than 30 percent of the city of New Orleans doesn’t have access at home.” The coronavirus pandemic and measures aimed at stopping its spread have demonstrated the stark divides among city residents when it comes to internet connectivity. After schools closed in March, students without access to the internet were left at a disadvantage against those who can learn from home, officials said. The same has been true for workers without access to technology that could allow them to keep working from their homes.
Studies have estimated that somewhere between 22 percent and 33 percent of New Orleans households lack a broadband internet connection, according to the city, and New Orleans has regularly ranked as one of the worst cities for internet access. The city was rated the 14th worst-connected large city in the country in a 2017 report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
The Cantrell administration has been discussing the idea of a citywide network for years, according to Rhodes, after earlier attempts to create such a program never got off the ground. Former Mayor Ray Nagin pitched a free citywide WiFi system in the months after Katrina, though that effort fizzled.
Municipally owned internet programs have had a mixed record of success, Rhodes said, but changing technology and cheaper equipment could change that.
While many of the details are still being worked out, the current plan is to piggyback off city-owned fiber-optic cables, which are already used to connect the city’s crime cameras and provide connections to other city services. If a full WiFi network were in place, it might also allow the city to expand its use of internet-connected equipment that could, for example, send information about traffic patterns or streets that are flooded.
Rhodes estimated it would cost between $2 million to $5 million to add the access points needed to allow residents to connect.
Exactly how the system would operate is still being worked out and it’s not clear whether an eventual network would require monthly bills, be ad-supported or use some other model, Rhodes said.
The City Council is expected to vote on a resolution Thursday that would have its own utility staff come up with a citywide WiFi plan.
“I don’t expect that it’ll be something that can be all rolled out all at once but I feel that there are pieces of it that could come together quickly,” said Councilmember Helena Moreno, who brought the idea up at a hearing on the school district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on Monday. “There are several groups, whether its cell phone companies or non-profits and let’s see how much we can start piecing together now and eventually have it sooner or later.”
For the coming school year, the Orleans Parish school district has purchased 6,000 WiFi hotspots to give to students, in addition to the 8,000 it has already distributed, to help those without internet access at home. The district has also been distributing low-cost laptops to students without computers, an effort aimed at making sure every student is able to access remote classes.
Superintendent Henderson Lewis, however, acknowledged that the district would have to do more to ensure those from disadvantaged households had the resources they needed.
“We are getting closer to closing the digital divide,” Lewis said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We know that there is more work to be done as our students return to school and as they prepare and come back, we have to continue to close that gap that still exists.”
It’s relatively rare for large cities to get involved in providing internet access directly and only three municipalities in the U.S. with more than 100,000 people — including Lafayette — currently run their own broadband systems. All of those use fiber-optic connections to homes rather than WiFi, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy organization that pushes for local control of utilities.
Larger communities, including New York City and Boston, have been rolling out more targeted programs aimed at highly trafficked areas or neighborhoods where internet access is low, he said.
Many other cities have toyed with providing internet access through WiFi only to abandon those efforts. In large part, the problem with wireless connections is that while good for outdoor areas, they don’t provide strong enough penetration in homes to provide a fast enough connection.
“A pure wireless approach can give you a more rapid deployment but it will come at a cost of quality,” Mitchell said.
The Cantrell administration is looking to provide connection speeds of 5 to 25 megabits per second. That translates to a speed that’s only 10 percent to 50 percent of what Cox offers through its basic internet service plan. The high end of the proposed range would be roughly in line with Cox’s Connect2Compete plan, an option the company rolled out to provide low-cost internet during the coronavirus pandemic.
Under that plan, residents receiving governmental nutritional assistance, housing assistance or live in public housing, have school-age children and are not a current Cox customer may qualify for free internet through September.
Both Cox and AT&T, the two major broadband providers in the city, responded to questions about New Orleans’s plan with statements about their low-cost options for students or the investments they’ve made in city infrastructure.
“We’re not trying to develop a luxury service, but trying to develop an essential utility that serves the public,” Rhodes said.
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