Closing the Digital Divide: New Wi-Fi Towers Provide Access to Underserved Students in Fort Worth, Texas

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Fort Worth Independent School District students most in need of internet access are now connected after the installation of several Wi-Fi towers.

The towers, which stand 60-to-80 feet tall, have been erected by the school district at Dunbar High School, Morningside Middle School, Rosemont Middle School and Eastern Hills High School.

One-quarter of students most in need of internet access have been connected. The remaining 75% of students will get internet service when phase two of the project begins in December. Zip codes that are underserved will be targeted, according to the district.

The pandemic and its effects, including the rise of virtual learning, exposed the digital divide, particularly in communities of color. Those students lack wifi access, exacerbating the already existing racial achievement gap in many schools across the country.

The towers are meant to help combat that problem in Fort Worth where an estimated 60,000 residents lack internet access.

“Our towers are up and functional,” said Chief Information Officer Marlon Shears in a statement. “We are continuing to deploy service by getting modems to students in need. We also have begun the process to put up more towers, extending service into additional areas.”

Voters approved funding the project in November 2020 through the Tax Ratification Election (TRE).

According to the 2019 Worst Connected Cities report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Fort Worth ranked No. 245 out of 625 cities in terms of connectivity. The report, based on data from the 2019 American Community Survey, found that 11% of Fort Worth households did not have broadband and nearly 28% of households lacked a cable, fiber optic line or DSL. This was an improvement over 2018, when 31% of households did not have cable, fiber optic or DSL.

NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer said 36 million U.S. households don't have a home broadband subscription. Of the 36 million, 26 million are in urban areas.

“So we know we have an infrastructure availability issue in rural areas,” she said. “And what we know in urban areas is even when the infrastructure is there, people don't always subscribe. And why don't people subscribe? It's expensive, digital literacy issues, trust issues about getting stuck with large bills.

“So there needs to be alternative solutions,” Siefer continued. “And what some school districts are doing ... is they've come up with an alternative solution, which is, you know what, we're just going to build it ourselves.”

That’s what Fort Worth is doing.

Clay Robison, spokesman for Texas State Teachers Association, noted that most students in Texas are no longer learning remotely, but are back in classrooms.

“The new Fort Worth towers should benefit students and teachers who are still involved in remote instruction,” he said, adding students learn best with a teacher in the classroom.

“If the Fort Worth district continues to provide wifi access. This will help students with their homework and studies at home and, we hope, help narrow the digital divide between low-income and more-fortunate students,” he said, later adding: “Most school districts were scrambling after the pandemic broke out to provide digital access to students who needed it. Some districts were more successful than others.”

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