McAllen, Texas, offers free communitywide Wi-Fi to bridge digital divide

Dive Brief:

  • McAllen, Texas, now has citywide wireless internet after it partnered with technology providers Federated Wireless and Cambium Networks to deploy a Wi-Fi network. The network comes as the city looks to reduce its digital divide, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, for students and others.
  • The city of 140,000 residents, including 23,000 school-age students, now has 24 base stations and more than 1,000 outdoor Wi-Fi access points mounted on utility poles, with the network using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) shared spectrum under a contract between the city and Frontera Consulting. The service is being provided at no cost to the city.
  • The network’s deployment comes on the heels of the McAllen Independent School District resuming classes Aug. 24, with plans to conduct remote learning for at least eight weeks. Every student has received a device to connect to the internet for the last nine years, Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said, but in-home internet connections can be lacking.

Dive Insight:

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the growing digital divide in the United States, with many functions of everyday life going remote and exposing inequitable internet access. The issues are especially stark in McAllen, a border community that saw 2.5% of its population (compared to a national average of 1.6%) infected with COVID-19 and has more than 25% of its residents living below the poverty line.

Like other cities, which have been forced to provide Wi-Fi connections via school buses or hotspots, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said students and those working remotely were siting in fast food restaurants’ parking lots or parks to get online. He said the citywide network provides a “permanent solution for all our neighborhoods.” 

“When you look at McAllen, we’re now not only a ‘Connected City,’ we’re a digital leader,” Darling said in a statement.

The citywide Wi-Fi network will change how McAllen’s schools teach, even once students are allowed back into their classrooms, Gonzalez said. The district will continue using tools like Google Classroom, have meetings and other conversations in a virtual environment and communicate using the available technology, Gonzalez said. 

“I believe that it’s transformed the way that we’re going to run schools as we move into the future,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the network required significant cooperation and partnerships, including with Hidalgo County, Texas, which is setting up towers in the northern part of the city to further enhance connectivity. He noted with 72% of residents being economically disadvantaged, compared to 61% in the state of Texas, partnerships in such initiatives are necessary. 

“I think we can certainly replicate this in other cities as long as we have the right partners, and the right folks at the city level that want to invest in something like this,” Matt Mangriotis, product manager at Cambium Networks, said.

Cities have looked at a variety of ways of reducing the digital divide, including through municipally owned networks like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and by investing in infrastructure. Government must lead the way in reducing the digital divide, said Clint Vince, head of the Smart Cities and Connected Communities Initiative and Think Tank at the Dentons law firm. 

“I think if government doesn’t play a leadership role, it’s either not going to happen, or it’s going to happen very slowly,” Vince said. “There’s been plenty of time to have much greater development than we have now. I think we need government leadership and government incentives to make it happen.”

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