The Phoenix City Council voted today in its formal public meeting to adopt an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the Phoenix Union High School District, 13 public elementary schools as well as the Maricopa County Community Colleges District to approve an additional $10 million to continue building the Community Wireless Network Project in Districts 4, 5, 7 and 8.

The project was first proposed in May 2020 and was approved for $2 million. Those funds were intended to assist students during the COVID-19 pandemic and their families who struggle through economic barriers to help provide them with internet access for school work.

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Online learning was difficult for many students and several households were reportedly struggling to find reliable internet connections during school closures which made things even more difficult. The program is seeking to support families during the hybrid learning process as schools are slowly opening up again this 2021- 2022 school year.

Members of the City of Phoenix, Phoenix College, Phoenix Union High School District, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority have been working alongside one another since school closures in 2020 to discuss more permanent and long-term solutions for the digital divide that is occurring in the Valley.

“I am very excited about this project and I will be proudly voting yes to approve the $10 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding to expand our community wireless network in partnership with Phoenix Union and Maricopa Community Colleges,” said District 7- Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari. “The need is urgent in my district.”

Requests to amend the existing IGA to add the $10 million in funds will help to continue on with the next phase of the digital divide project to expand the existing Wi-Fi system to a 4 square mile area that will allow internet access to over nearly 1,000 students in need that do not normally have reliable connections in their homes to study. 

“We know the digital divide will continue to be an ongoing issue even after the pandemic. Whether it’s our local businesses on South Central to our farms and mountainside homes in Laveen to seniors and parents in West Phoenix, many communities stand to benefit from this [project],” Ansari added. “Even though in- person learning is well underway, we need to make sure that everyone has access.”

After approval of the initial $2 million, several beta-testing sites were successfully installed which allowed for the collection of useful information during the process that proved to be positive feedback and user experience data. Testing included the Phoenix College and PUHSD campus and offices. The data collected is going to be used to move the project forward to its next step which is looking to increase the Wi-Fi system’s capacity and reach for the communities in Districts 4, 5, 7 and 8.

“This project started with the Alhambra and Cartwright Elementary School Districts and it’s a big deal; I am really excited to support this,” said District 8 Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia. “I think using the ARPA and the COVID relief funds are some of the best investments we can make especially with the permanency of this program and the fact that its infrastructure is going to be here for a long time and for future generations so I am excited to vote yes.”

Funding for this project is available through the city’s allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act which was received from the federal government. The project will have no impact on the General Fund and total funding is said to not exceed $12 million.

“These items will help to increase our Wi-Fi accessibility. When the pandemic hit, students were asked to continue their education digitally from home and many students didn’t have access to the internet and some didn’t even have a computer for school work,” said District 1 Councilwoman Ann O’Brien. “These are natural next steps to closing that digital divide amongst our students and residents and upgrading our city government to 21st century technologies and I am in full support of this item.”

The Phoenix City Council all appeared to be in agreement with the project but members of the public also made their voices heard in the meeting.

“I am concerned with the health effects of putting wireless radiation in more places in the city and radiating people 24/7 without the ability for them to opt out of that technology,” said Shaina Cinnamon. “The 5G towers are already all over the city and just seeing more of them come up doesn’t feel right when there’s other alternatives like fiber optics and other things we can do besides radiate people.”

Jason Paul, who opposes the communications wireless frequencies, shared in the meeting that his wife, who worked in a place where a cellphone tower was present for 10 years, was diagnosed with a malignant brain cancer in August of 2020. “The World Health Organization in 2012 stated that radiation from cellphones and towers is possibly carcinogenic to humans and may cause gliomas, a type of brain cancer. Towers are more dangerous because they emit greater intensity of radiation 24/7,” he said.

Both arguments in favor and disapproval of the Community Wireless Network Project were heard and considered when making a final decision on the program. The item went to a vote and passed 8 to 0. For more information on where to find locations that offer free Wi-Fi service in Phoenix, just visit the website. According to the site, the city of Phoenix expanded their wireless network coverage outside of nearly 50 libraries, community, senior and recreation centers to ensure that every student can have access to the internet to complete their school work. This public service is offered to residents that can sit in parking lots and public areas outside of participating facilities to connect their devices from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday. The Phoenix City Council did approve this installation of Wi-Fi antennas on city-owned and public facilities through the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.