Deployed as a digital divide solution, the Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy is a replicable network connecting students to schoolwork and virtual classrooms in Phoenix.
“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.”
The COVID-19 health emergency 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,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. “This is a great example of how, by looking at things differently, we can produce innovative solutions that highlight Phoenix as a top-tier city. PHX DECC is a cost-effective, collaborative, digital divide solution we’re proud to champion.”
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.
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 Community 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 student’s educational opportunities.
An investment in the workforce of the future
As America’s fastest-growing large city, Phoenix is a magnet for growing companies and a steadily increasing demand for workers.
“From an economic development standpoint, we couldn’t take a chance that we would have any gaps in our future workforce,” said Mackay. “We’ve really worked diligently across all sectors to create a place that makes Phoenix Arizona a great destination for high-wage technology-related businesses that we hadn’t seen before. They are really attracted to the workforce that we have.”
The key is off-the-shelf technology
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.
Finding a long-term solution
“We have significant information about our students,” said Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District. “We have a staggering number who live with food insecurity. (So we know) the students who live without access to resources, and they certainly live without access to technology.”
Gestson said the priority was getting high-speed school access to families with a permanent solution.
“Through the willing businesses, students could access WiFi in coffee shops; they could log on to the Internet near libraries and some public buildings,” said Gestson. “These are short-term solutions.”
The pandemic showed that even the short-term solutions had significant problems.
“When the pandemic hit, all students were sent home, and so were their parents,” said Ross. “This meant that the household internet connection was being used by parents for work and multiple students for school. There wasn’t the capacity for everyone at the same time. Plus, businesses that normally provided WiFi for students were also closed, and many turned off their wireless networks.”
Pastor noted that the problem existed in her own home, where she juggled the role of parent, employee, board member and council member.
“We had internet connection issues with all the video conferences and virtual classes,” she said.”
For thousands of families, trying to go to school from home was impossible. They didn’t have food on the table, let alone a high-speed internet connection. Sitting in a parking lot at closed libraries and recreation centers helped, but it was not a solution for doing homework.
It wasn’t just pockets here and there
Ross observed that the pandemic highlighted digital divide problems that weren’t just scattered pockets in rural America.
“Almost everyone with a student at home was impacted in some way by demands for bandwidth,” he said. “That was when we decided it was time to take the theory and test it in practice.”
Phoenix wasn’t the only municipality facing the challenge. Other cities and organizations have attempted solutions. Reports say that costs skyrocketed, and the numbers served were limited. The answer coming from Phoenix College would serve 250,000 families for far less than other systems. Using off-the-shelf equipment, school districts could take on the system maintenance within their budgets.
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 goes live on September 1 in three school districts: Phoenix Union High School District and Alhambra and Cartwright elementary school districts.
A public effort supported by business and the private telecom industry
The WiFi canopy for the schools required security, high-speed broadband capacity, and individual districts’ ability to manage cost and maintenance within existing technology capabilities. PHX DECC delivers all three solutions. It required financial backing to make it possible, that’s where Phoenix played a major role.
“ARPA and the CARES Act provide necessary federal funding to invest in a resilient, strong future that will last for generations,” said Gallego. “Investing those monies into PHX DECC will create a more connected community and deliver the critical results our city needs.”
The canopy connects students and parents to virtual classrooms and conferences, homework assignments, and school-curated resources. It does not provide unfettered access to the Internet.
Telecommunication companies generally oppose cities and educational institutions offering broadband services. With PHX DECC, the Southwest Telecommunications Association is supporting the effort.
“The cable communications industry supports this effort. We don’t want to see government entities competing with private businesses; this system does not compete,” said Susan Bitter Smith, Executive Director of the Southwest Cable Communications Association. “The Association understood the communities’ needs and the (PHX DECC)’s unique connection of student to classroom is giving underserved communities the help they need.”
Affordable, attainable, scalable PHX DECC
“We wanted something that any educational organization could use,” Ross said.
Instead of issuing a blank check, the collaborative effort kept in focus the cost of maintaining the PHX DECC system.
“We didn’t want districts to have to hire outside vendors with specialist costs to maintain the system,” said Pastor. “We wanted the districts to be able to integrate the maintenance into existing budgets and capabilities. We succeeded.”
That controlled cost and using existing equipment make the system scalable and transferable to school districts anywhere. Ross is genuinely excited about what this means up and down the education ladder.
“We are creating a program here at Phoenix College that trains our technology students,” he said. They learn how to install, maintain and operate (PHX DECC), which can help them find jobs with schools locally or anywhere this system will be installed.”
Those involved in the entire process say they almost get goosebumps thinking about how PHX DECC is a life-changing technology for families.
“Our entire community is very excited that we’ve become involved in this intergovernmental effort to solve the digital divide,” said Gestson. “Once we roll out this network, our staff and faculty will truly be able to keep students engaged on nights and weekends. For our students, they are very excited.”
Gestson said, “In this highly technological world, tech access should not be a privilege; it should be a right.”
PHX DECC Phase I goes live on September 1.