Pima County Formulates Plan to Expand Internet Access | Local news

When Pima County’s public facilities were forced to close to the public as a precaution, the parking lots of county libraries became crowded with people trying to access a Wi-Fi signal.

“There’s nothing like a pandemic and the closure of a public library to show how your community, for whatever reason, can’t access the things that enable them to be productive citizens,” said Michelle Simon, deputy director support services for the province’s libraries.

The library spent $200,000 to purchase 400 hotspots for students to take home to do the remote schoolwork that the county’s school districts turned to, but the effort revealed a bigger problem related to Internet access. Pima County.

“It was that conversation about the amount of money we, as a library system, had to bring up to help this small contingent of our community members — and furthermore, to highlight the fact how many people were hanging out in our parking lots, trying to get a little bit of our to get wifi – really hammered that our community needs our help,” Simon said.

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The county public library and information technology department teamed up to put together the “Strategic Planning Taskforce for Digital Access in Pima County,” which created a long-term plan to improve access to affordable and reliable broadband Internet.

The task force plans to implement part of that vision through an $800,000 contract with Cox Communications to activate 130 hotspots in rural or underserved locations that users can access for free.

The Board of Trustees was due to vote on contract approval at its March 15 meeting, but went ahead until April 5 to get more information about the hotspot locations.

Supervisor Steve Christy, whose district includes many of the county’s rural areas with minimal internet access, said he wants his voters to have access in their homes rather than relying on hotspots in community centers.

“I don’t think there’s a need to provide extra or better service in the libraries and community centers,” he said. ‘It’s on the rooftops, it brings them to people’s homes. And the plan, even if it was tentative, didn’t seem to do anything about it.”

Dan Hunt, Pima County Chief Information Officer, said providing Internet access in every home is a “lofty goal,” but it’s one the task force is on track to achieve.

“People don’t understand that this isn’t a 12-month process. It’s an eight or ten year process in a community the size of Tucson,” he said. “Tucson is a big part of Pima County, but there’s a lot of Pima County that isn’t Tucson too.”

New hotspots

The Pima County digital access plan consists of short, medium, and long-term goals through fiscal year 2025.

But by the end of September this year, the goal is to increase the number of publicly accessible hotspots with 10 locations in each district district. By the end of the year, the task force hopes to develop a plan to address the digital literacy gaps and conduct a community needs assessment.

“As a result of that plan and the goals that we’ve set, if you look at the plan, the short-term goal, which broadband infrastructure is talking about, is to get more connectivity in households at some point,” Simon said. “That’s where this Cox contract comes in.”

According to US Census data, approximately 88% of county residents had a broadband internet subscription in 2020. But in rural areas, connectivity can be spotty, which ISPs often overlook when building fiber optic internet.

In assessing areas for hotspots under the Cox Contact, the digital access task force “looked for places that were community gatherings,” Hunt said, such as the Picture Rocks Community Center and the Three Points Veterans Memorial Neighborhood Park.

If the Board of Trustees approves the contract, the province will set up 130 remote hotspots in rural, deprived areas that residents can access via a library login code.

There are 80 hot spots in metro Tucson that are already available to Cox customers who are not at home.

“Now the library is becoming a Cox customer on behalf of county residents, to be able to say that all these hotspots are now available to you, here’s the password,” Hunt said.

But the new hotspots are just the beginning of the task force’s efforts. There are four subcommittees dealing with different aspects of the digital access plan, including financing and procurement, digital literacy, digital access and broadband infrastructure.

“We’re still in our infancy,” Simon said. “We’re trying to get the pieces in place, so we’re turning everything on and letting everyone know.”

Internet access at home

The library is paying for the Cox contract through Emergency Connectivity Funds provided by the federal government to schools and libraries, and Simon expects about $200,000 in repayment funds for the county’s first year of digital expansion efforts.

But as with any one-time disbursement of federal money, the challenge is making sure the programs that hold the cash funds are sustainable.

‘Can we pay them forever? We’ll have to figure all that out,” Hunt said. “We basically have a three-year federal funding mechanism that we jumped on board because it was available to us and allowed us to meet short-term goals.”

But longer-term goals, including building fiber networks to allow underserved areas to access the Internet at home, may be more expensive.

Hunt said the county has applied for a $12.5 million grant from the Arizona Commerce Authority to bring fiber optic networks to 1,300 to 1,500 homes in the Avra ​​Valley and Corona de Tucson areas.

“They are in places where an ISP could never afford to build it because their return on investment is way too long,” he said.

Simon said bringing internet home is also partly achieved by helping people get their own internet subscription. There are several government grants for Internet access, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounted broadband to low-income households.

“If there’s one part of the city that has a low adoption rate, but the infrastructure is there, that’s where the other part of this is, where we can help them understand how to access the Internet with what’s free, and let They then use the Affordable Connectivity Program,” says Simon. “Now they participate autonomously. They no longer need our help to do it.”

But people without internet can’t use the county’s programs if they don’t know about it.

“Here’s this funding mechanism to enable people to get broadband at a much lower cost than what they’re paying now. And what did we do as a federal government and all those companies? We put it on the internet,” Hunt said. “They don’t have laptops, they don’t have connectivity, they don’t have the resources to even understand, how do I process this thing?”

The task force is awaiting approval of the Cox contract by the board of directors and plans to launch an outreach campaign to educate residents without internet access about their connectivity options. If the contract is approved, Simon said her team hopes to have the hot spots in May.

“We can’t just promote it online. If you’re trying to get people to connect to it who aren’t online, you’ve got to have signs somewhere, you’ve got to have scraps of paper somewhere. So you might see things like that popping up in the community,” Simon said. “But this is a robust plan. It’s not just about the Cox contract.”

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com

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