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Tucson Builds Public-Private Partnership to Expand Connectivity

Officials in Tucson, Ariz., are working on an ambitious community wireless program to expand connectivity for teleworkers and virtual students. The pandemic has helped highlight glaring gaps in digital equity.

tucson streetcar
Expanding Internet access for those without reliable service remains a daunting logistical obstacle for many cities across the country. 

To help close this digital divide, Insight Enterprises recently announced a partnership with the city of Tucson, Ariz., where more than 32,000 homes still lack reliable Internet access needed for things like remote work and virtual learning.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need to bolster connectivity last year, city leaders began discussing a city Wi-Fi expansion plan. Tucson city officials voted in August 2020 to use $4.4 million of federal CARES Act funds for its Community Wireless Program, which aims to provide service and routers to eligible residents.

Tucson CIO Collin Boyce said the program and partnership are part of ongoing efforts to provide a municipally-managed broadband system and devices to residents who need service the most.

“We initially talked about doing community Wi-Fi, and we pivoted to LTE and pulled in two providers — JMA [Wireless] and Insight — to help with the implementation of the product,” Boyce said, adding that several residents have already been provided with a durable “ruggedized device” similar to many basic hot spot devices.

The need for a uniform city plan was perhaps most apparent when Tucson Unified School District began distributing devices needed for virtual learning. The problem was that not all of those devices worked everywhere, which caused headaches for officials and families.

“They were buying devices, and they went with Verizon, but Verizon’s reception isn’t everywhere. Then they started to buy T-Mobile devices, and T-Mobile isn’t everywhere, so they went to AT&T,” he said. 

“By addressing areas that have the highest need, we can consolidate the school districts to just us being that one provider so they no longer have to bounce between three providers in order to cover the gamut,” he added. “They will no longer have to deal with that nightmare scenario.”

Boyce said devices will be distributed to students in need with the help of the tech company. In the coming months, Boyce said, thousands more residents will have reliable Internet access. 

“It’s probably the largest partnership since I’ve been in government with the local school district and the municipal government,” Boyce said. “Today, we’re slating around 5,000 devices we want to get out into the community.”

According to the Rand Corporation, approximately 20 percent of school districts “have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Meanwhile, many rural and underserved families still go without reliable service. 

Boyce served as Lansing, Mich.'s CIO until 2019, where he said there’s a growing demand for virtual learning options. He thinks virtual and hybrid learning models will likely expand “over the next two to three years," making universal connectivity vital.

“I think there’s going to be a new hybrid school situation that’s going to pop up and grow from out of this,” Boyce said.

According to an Insight case study, the first 5,000 endpoint devices will focus on connecting teleworkers and students. Phase 2 involves deploying endpoints and network core infrastructure “with a strategic focus on public transportation and other public areas to maximize resident access.” Boyce said the next phase of the plan will help cover roughly 70 to 80 percent of the city with LTE access.

“We’re [now] going to start our deployment to our first roughly 1,000 citizens,” he said Monday, adding that Phase 2 is estimated to begin in April.

“We will build it out so that by the next school year, we can easily double the population of people using our services.”

Insight hopes to help local governments lay the groundwork for future “smart cities” where remote work, education and health care through telehealth services will increasingly depend on reliable connectivity.

Brian Louderback, regional director of state, local and education for Insight Public Sector, said Insight’s Community Wireless Broadband solution, announced on Jan. 27, aims to help provide the infrastructure necessary to make public services more efficient.

“Our goal is to help our clients with some type of connectivity — overarching connectivity — within their cities and counties,” he said. “The reason behind that is to help solve the digital divide, which is a current problem, and also to transform tomorrow by focusing more on smart city concepts.”

That overarching connectivity will be vital for basic communication, as well.

About 80 percent of the people who applied to Tucson’s program have no access to the Internet. Boyce admitted that officials “underestimated how many people had no connectivity” to use city government websites, for instance.

“When you have something as major as a pandemic taking place, citizens that don’t have Internet connectivity call,” he said. “It overwhelms our phone systems and the call takers. Providing this allows for better communication with our citizens.”

While the pandemic has created a plethora of obstacles for the public sector, Louderback said it's also necessitated a chance to think differently about public-private infrastructure partnerships that aim to close the digital divide. He said Tucson is a “frontrunner” in this regard.

“Our government agencies and public education systems are having to think differently and truly have the opportunity today to transform,” he said. 

“They are aggressively moving in that direction out of need, and I think that’s a positive sign for all of us – that they’re embracing technology, that they have funding for technology and a vision on what transformation looks like in their communities,” he added. 

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.