- The City of McAllen, TX now has citywide wireless internet after it partnered with technology providers Federated Wireless and Cambium Networks to deploy a Wi-Fi network for its community. The network comes as the city looks to reduce the digital divide, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
- The city of 140,000 people, 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 at no cost to the city.
- The network's deployment came on the heels of McAllen Independent School District resuming classes on Aug. 24, with plans to conduct remote learning for the first eight weeks at least. Every student in the district 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.
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 (3,500 people, compared to a national average of 1.6%) infected and has more than 25% of its residents living below the poverty line.
Like other cities, which have been forced to try and provide Wi-Fi connections via school buses or hotspots, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said students and those working remotely had been forced to visit 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.
Matt Mangriotis, product manager at Cambium Networks, said the signal spreads out around 300 or 400 meters from each Wi-Fi access point, meaning not every utility pole is being used to provide the network. Using heat mapping to determine where coverage would go once the infrastructure was deployed, Mangriotis said it means residents receive "the best coverage with the least amount of points and least amount of equipment."
Gonzalez said the network required significant cooperation and partnerships, including with Hidalgo County, TX, which is going to set 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. Mangriotis agreed that those partnerships are key in replicating these initiatives in other cities.
"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," Mangriotis said.
Cities have looked to a variety of means to try and reduce the digital divide, including through municipally-owned networks like in Chattanooga, TN 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."
The citywide Wi-Fi network will change how McAllen's schools teach, even once students are allowed back into their classrooms for in-person instruction, 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.
With the Wi-Fi network behind them, Gonzalez said it should make things even easier. "I believe that it's transformed the way that we're going to run schools as we move into the future," Gonzalez said.