Austin ISD moves to expand home internet access for students

Education

An AISD student in in-school learning on his device. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin ISD says more of their students could have free internet access in the next few months.

The district estimates about 30% of their students don’t have reliable high-speed internet access.

It’s investing about $400 per household for mobile hotspots. It’s starting with a smaller group of students, for now.

“We already have the one-to-one technology for our students, and if they have a Chromebook if they have an iPad but not Internet access, that’s kind of half the problem that we need to solve,” said Cristina Nguyen, AISD spokesperson.

She said the district has selected 150 students in the Colony Park neighborhood to receive mobile hotspots that go home with them every day.

Nguyen said they chose the location because of how close it is to the AISD Technology Center.

She said it also “offers LTE coverage benefits with a limited cost for pilot deployment.”

The program will start at the end of October/beginning of November and if successful will expand to the rest of the district in the spring.

Nguyen said they plan to apply to the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund program for reimbursement for about 150 pilot devices. She said long financial help may have to come from other funds.

The Texas Education Agency is also tackling the problem for nearly three million students, who either don’t have high-speed internet available to them or can’t access it for other reasons.

The TEA pointed to a 2021 report by the Governor’s Broadband Development Council, which found “affordability continues to be the leading barrier.”

The TEA’s research found some families worried about outstanding bills or bad credit, or “they were afraid that they eventually wouldn’t be able to afford the cost,” said Gaby Rowe, TEA Operation Connectivity project lead.

In addition to affordability, research identified other factors, such as fear or inability to set up an account in their name.

Some families feared detection because they were in the country illegally, according to Rowe.

The first phase of the TEA’s Operation Connectivity revolved around getting kids access to devices. Officials say they were able to achieve virtually a one-to-one student-to-device ratio for those who are economically disadvantaged — but also noticed that actual connectivity to the internet was low.

Now, in phase two, the agency is buying blocks of internet lines for districts to purchase in their nameFor their families.

“So, in the same way, that we bought laptops and hotspots, we are enabling the district to buy a block of lines for them to manage those accounts, for those accounts to be in the district name, and for them to then assign those to households of their students,” Rowe explained.

Whereas AISD says their hotspots will only connect to the school’s network, the state’s program is not limited.

“Not only serve the needs of those students but would also serve the needs of the family to access telehealth, to access workforce development,” Rowe said.

The TEA says Leander ISD is one of the Central Texas districts signing up for this program.

You can see if your school district is part of that, too, by signing up here. Rowe encourages families to get on the waitlist even if their district hasn’t entered the program, yet.

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