TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona's second most populous city plans to use $4.5 million of federal pandemic aid to expand free public Wi-Fi into areas of Tucson most impacted by the digital divide.
City Council members who approved the plan last month said it will support the needs of citizens and help them deal with issues that have risen as a direct result of the pandemic, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
“There is a digital divide in this community where there are parts of this city where people have internet they’re working fine and dandy,” Councilman Steve Kozachik said, KVOA-TV reported. “There are parts of this city that don’t have the connection, those are parts that we’re going to target first.”
Officials used census data to identify Tucson neighborhoods most impacted by the digital divide by looking at income levels, population and whether there was coverage available from other broadband services such as CenturyLink and Cox.
The data showed that 10,798 households in Tucson lack access to the internet. Covering nearly 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) and targeting the most economically impacted areas of the city, the plan will reach nearly 54,000 households and over 116,000 people.
School districts that will benefit from the plan include Tucson Unified Flowing Wells Unified and Amphitheater Unified.
Collin Boyce, Tucson’s chief information officer, said most of the planned expansion areas center on parks. "And then they’re going to expand out into the rest of the neighborhoods that are hardest hit,” he said.
Boyce, who is leading the development of the wireless plan, benefits will extend beyond in-home internet access, allowing officials to use this same infrastructure to develop smart traffic control technology.
City officials said initial deployment will occur in November.
Boyce said the hardware will be mounted on existing infrastructure, KGUN-TV reported. “Poles, traffic lights, anything that’s considered to be street furniture.”
The council's July 21 vote was not without debate, Arizona Public Media reported.
Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham urged the council to move ahead with the project, despite not having detailed plans or timeline.
“This is a sound investment no matter what. We get to use CARES Act to build something that can be with Tucson forever, and not only that, we get to help the most disenfranchised areas with their telecom needs,” Cunningham said.
Mayor Regina Romero objected to the lack of specifics.
“We need a timeline, a budget as to how all things are being spent, a plan on how we’re going to spend it, and who’s the vendor? Is it Verizon, is it T-Mobile?” Romero said.
But the council voted 4-3 to move ahead, with the majority saying the need was urgent and that details could wait for a later meeting.