A $1.3 million grant from a state program is helping the city of Longmont, Colo., expand broadband Internet service to K-12 students who are currently enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.
A $1.3 million state grant is helping Longmont, Colo., expand broadband service to K-12 students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.
The project involves a partnership between NextLight, Longmont’s fiber-optic broadband system, and the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD). NextLight Executive Director Valerie Dodd said the money will be used to do three things: stand up a Wi-Fi network in areas with low Internet penetration and income challenges; revive a decommissioned wireless network in and around the city; and expand NextLight’s fiber footprint into areas on the periphery of the city.
“We are trying to eradicate the digital divide, one household at a time,” Dodd said.
The project will result in a better long-term connectivity fix for SVVSD students in need. After the pandemic started, SVVSD recognized that broadband access was an issue for “a significant number of students,” SVVSD Chief Technology Officer Michelle Bourgeois said. Last year, the district worked with Cisco to create Wi-Fi access points in the parking lots of 10 of its buildings and partnered with T-Mobile to deliver hot spots to families who needed a different solution.
“It gave us that first layer of availability until we could find a better plan,” Bourgeois said.
The funding for the SVVSD project comes from the Connecting Colorado Students Grant Program, which was established in November. DeLilah Collins, assistant director for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Act Programs, said the program started with a bucket of $2 million that would be given out to local areas based on a competitive application process, but Colorado Gov. Jared Polis felt that number wasn’t high enough and dedicated another $20 million to the program.
Collins said the criteria for awarding funds was based on a district’s number of students receiving free and reduced lunch, as well as Census data about broadband availability within geographic areas. Fortunately, the requests from applicants didn’t exceed the amount of available money, so everyone who applied received an award. Collins pointed out, however, that applicants may have asked for less based on their perception of the program’s total level of funding — a lesson learned for any state looking to implement a similar program.
“Some of our applicants were a little conservative with their requests,” Collins said. “There’s still need out here in Colorado.”
For SVVSD, the grant money is critical in that it allows the district to respond more quickly and to better prepare for the future.
“Without this much-needed boost,” Bourgeois wrote in an email, “our goal — high quality Internet for every student — would remain the same, but the timeline to fully meet the needs would have been much longer. Without grants and partnerships like this, the ongoing costs of monthly fees for cellular hot spots or for subsidized subscriptions to ISPs make scaling and sustaining a long-term effort a challenge for many school districts.”
One of the keys to the project is that NextLight and SVVSD had an existing working relationship. According to City Manager Harold Dominguez, Longmont’s system had already served as the backbone component for SVVSD’s system, saving the district $140,000 and increasing its overall technological capacity. Provider-school relationships are essential for improving broadband access for students.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge for us right now,” Collins said. “Unless there’s a good relationship in the community, some of those communities are left underserved. That community partnership is extremely key to ensuring any type of broadband infrastructure buildout includes your anchor institutions.”
In addition to connecting students, the SVVSD project will have benefits for the larger community. Right now, NextLight covers roughly 90 percent of the city, Dodd said. With the expanded coverage that will come from the project, NextLight, which offers some of the fastest speeds in the country, can allow households to fulfill their business aspirations.
“We’ve seen that,” Dominguez said, “and that’s when we talk about the entrepreneurial network. You can’t overvalue what the ability to have an affordable high-speed connection is to the family.”
Dodd added that the infrastructure for the SVVSD project can potentially be leveraged for future builds that would bring Internet access to even more residents. Additionally, the increased coverage can put Longmont in a better position to achieve its goal of becoming a smart city, whether that means helping the municipality rely more on renewable energy or enabling city staff to connect to the Internet without a problem while they’re working in the field, Dominguez said.
While Longmont is looking forward to such prospects, the focus now is on making sure that any student who needs broadband can get it, said Dodd. Whether through the fruits of the SVVSD project or the ever-growing Sharing the NextLight program, the city aims to make life easier for thousands of students.
“Our students shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to learn at home, to learn at school, to learn at their own pace … because of a lack of reliable Internet access,” Bourgeois said. “For us, this is an equity issue.”
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