Dallas ISD rolls out free at-home internet access for students

By Sujata Dand, Senior Editor and Reporter
Dallas, Texas | health care, education, public policy

September 2, 2021

West Dallas

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Pedro Lopez, a 13-year-old West Dallas student, is an eighth-grader at Dallas ISD’s Greiner Arts Academy in Oak Cliff. His favorite class is science.

“You get to learn about a lot of stuff like erosion, what happens inside a volcano, dissecting animals …” he explains. 

Last school year, Pedro was a virtual learner. He watched his teacher dissect a pig via Zoom — a science lesson that wouldn’t have been possible without a mobile hotspot. The device casts a wireless signal so Pedro can connect to the internet from home.

Even though Pedro is back to school in person, he still uses his hotspot to get online. He says it really helps with class assignments.

“It’s really good when they give you homework at school so you can do it at home,” he says.

A Dallas ISD employee stands near stacks of boxes with mobile hotspots that were distributed to students in 2020 as the Covid pandemic began. Those hotspot contracts are beginning to expire, so the district is investing in more reliable internet technology. Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD Flickr

Dallas ISD invested in 40,000 hotspots last school year for families like Pedro’s without reliable internet at home. But the annual contracts for those hot spots are beginning to expire, so the district is switching gears.

The Texas Education Agency negotiated lower rates with AT&T and Spectrum to provide high speed internet for qualifying students. They’re trying to connect more than 1.7 million students across the state who don’t have reliable internet access at home.

The internet providers lowered typical costs by 20 to 40 percent. Houston and Dallas ISDs are two of the largest districts in the state to sign on to the plan, along with 12 rural school districts.

“Being able to have a bulk order made a tremendous difference,” says Gabby Roe, project lead for TEA’s Operation Connectivity

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Dallas ISD’s board approved $18 million to connect economically disadvantaged students who don’t have a wired connection at home. That’s about 80 percent of students in the district.

“We feel that this is a better alternative to a mobile hotspot in that it provides a more robust internet service,” says Jack Kelanic, Dallas ISD’s chief technology officer. 

He says a wired connection is faster and more reliable than a hotspot. The district is offering the AT&T fiber product, which falls in the fastest range for speed. A recent survey conducted by Kelanic’s team showed more than a quarter of all Dallas families have internet speeds below federal standards.

“That’s really inadequate for how our students are using the internet today to participate in remote learning or do their just their normal homework activities, upload videos that sort of thing,” Kelanic explains.

Dallas ISD is fronting the money to sign everyone up. Kelanic says the lines have to be installed by Sunday, Oct. 31 for the district to be reimbursed through the federal government’s Emergency Connectivity Fund. (Update: Dallas ISD extended the application deadline through Nov. 15.)

“There’s a sense of urgency. Schools are already in session,” Kelanic says. “We’re already talking about virtual programming options for some of our students. So, we really want to get these services installed as quickly as possible and we know that there’s some lead time for providers.”

Trusted community resources, like Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas, can be key to helping families access the free at-home internet Dallas ISD is offering to families.

Getting families to sign up isn’t always easy. Pedro’s mother, Gloria Pereira, says she received an email from her son’s school about the service, but it was difficult for her to understand. Job Sterling, director of adult education at Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas, says he sees this often and that’s why he does his best to help. He laughs as he says he sometimes finds himself translating two languages — English and technology.

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“Even when it’s in Spanish, sometimes it’s difficult to understand because it’s not conversational Spanish and the technology aspect is very difficult for parents as well,” Sterling says. “So they typically get stuck and most times they typically give up.”

But Pereira doesn’t want to give up or miss out. She scheduled time at Wesley-Rankin Community Center with Sterling to apply for the free wired internet connection the district is offering to families. Pereira says having internet at home is essential.

“It’s been really useful and important because they have been able to have communication,” says Pereira, translated by Sterling. “They have also been able to help Pedro with his homework, so it’s really helped through the pandemic.”  

Kelanic says being able to provide fixed internet connections is a better solution than mobile hotspots, but it’s not a long-term solution.

“This program and the funding will only carry us through Aug. 31, 2022, but that does buy us a little bit of time to continue to develop our private cellular network,” he says.

This cellular tower at Lincoln High School sends a signal to most homes within a 2-mile radius of the campus. By the end of April it will connect 200 families to the school's internet. Photo by Nitashia Johnson
Dallas ISD has built cellular towers at seven pilot schools, including L.G. Pinkston High School in West Dallas, to try to connect more families to the internet. Photo by Nitashia Johnson

The private cellular plan extends the existing wireless signal from a school to the surrounding neighborhood so students can access the internet in their homes. Over the last decade, the district invested to ensure that each of the 230 Dallas ISD campuses have internet service. Kelanic says adding cellular towers on school grounds allows the district to leverage that existing investment. 

The program aims to give families who live within two miles of a campus wireless internet access emitting from a cellular tower at the school. So far, in the seven pilot schools (Lincoln High School, Dunbar Learning Center and Rice Learning Center in South Dallas; Pinkston High School in West Dallas; South Oak Cliff High School, Roosevelt High School and Adamson High School), the students within a half mile to a mile radius of the school have the best access and speeds. 

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Kelanic says the district plans to continue to move forward with this solution where it makes sense. 

“We see it as more of a targeted solution in specific neighborhoods where infrastructure doesn’t currently exist.”

And, while the private cellular plan continues to take shape, the district will continue to strategize on how to help keep students connected to the internet full-time. 

Even though the initial Aug. 31 deadline to apply for an at-home connection has passed, Dallas ISD is still accepting applications. Families can apply right here. (Update: Dallas ISD extended the application deadline through Nov. 15.)

Listen to this story from our media partner, KERA.

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