When Pima County’s public facilities were forced to close to the public as a pandemic precaution, the parking lots of the county’s libraries became full with people trying to access a Wi-Fi signal.
“(There’s) nothing like a pandemic and the closure of a public library to show how your community does not have access, for whatever reason, to the things that allow them to be productive citizens,” said Michelle Simon, the deputy director of support services for the county’s libraries.
The library spent $200,000 to purchase 400 hot spots for students to take home to perform the remote school work the county’s school districts pivoted to, but the effort highlighted a more significant problem regarding internet access in Pima County.
“It was that conversation about the amount of money that we as a library system had to put forth to help this small contingent of our community members — and additionally, to highlight the fact of how many people were hanging out in our parking lots, trying to get a little bit of our Wi-Fi — really hammered home that our community needs our help,” Simon said.
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The county’s public library and information technology department partnered to assemble the “Strategic Planning Taskforce for Digital Access in Pima County,” which created a long-term plan to increase access to affordable and reliable broadband internet.
The task force plans to implement a part of that vision through an $800,000 contract with Cox Communications to activate 130 hot spots in rural or underserved locations that users can access for free.
The Board of Supervisors was set to vote on approving the contract at its March 15 meeting but continued the item to April 5 to receive more information on the locations of the hot spots.
Supervisor Steve Christy, whose district encompasses many of the county’s rural areas with minimal internet access, said he wants his constituents to have access in their homes instead of relying on hot spots at community centers.
“It’s not the necessity, in my view, of placing additional or better service in the libraries and community centers,” he said. “It’s on the rooftops, it’s getting them into people’s homes. And the plan, even though it was preliminary, didn’t seem to address that at all.”
Dan Hunt, Pima County’s chief information officer, said providing internet access to every home is a “lofty goal,” but it’s one the task force is moving toward achieving.
“People don’t get that that’s not a 12-month process. It’s an eight- or 10-year process in a community the size of Tucson,” he said. “Tucson is a large portion of Pima County, but there’s a lot of Pima County that’s not Tucson as well.”
New hot spots
Pima County’s digital access plan is comprised of short-, mid- and long-term goals running through fiscal year 2025.
But by the end of September this year, the goal is to increase the number of publicly accessible hot spots by 10 sites in each county district. By the end of the year, the task force hopes to create a plan to address gaps in digital literacy and perform a community needs assessment.
“As a result of that plan and those goals that we have set, if you’re looking at the plan, the short-term goal, what the broadband infrastructure talks about, is getting more connectivity in households by a certain point,” Simon said. “That is where this Cox contract comes into play.”
About 88% of county residents had a broadband internet subscription in 2020, according to U.S. Census data. But connectivity can be spotty in rural areas that internet service providers often overlook when building fiber-optic internet.
When assessing areas for hot spots under the Cox contact, the digital access task force looked “for places that were community gathering points,” Hunt said, such as the Picture Rocks Community Center and the Three Points Veterans Memorial Neighborhood Park.
If the Board of Supervisors approves the contract, the county will set up 130 external hot spots in rural, underserved areas that residents can access with a log-in provided by the library.
There are 80 hot spots throughout metro Tucson that are already available to Cox customers away from home.
“Now the library is becoming a Cox customer on behalf of county residents, to be able to say, all of these hotspots are now available to you, here’s the password,” Hunt said.
But the new hot spots are just the beginning of the task force’s efforts. There are four subcommittees dedicated to different aspects of the digital access plan, including funding and procurement, digital literacy, digital access and broadband infrastructure.
“We’re in the nascent stages,” Simon said. “We’re trying to get the pieces in place so we turn it all on and let everybody know.”
At-home internet access
The library’s paying for the Cox contract through Emergency Connectivity Funds the federal government provided to schools and libraries, and Simon expects about $200,000 in reimbursement funds for the county’s first year of digital expansion efforts.
But as with any one-time disbursement of federal money, the challenge is making sure the programs the money funds are sustainable.
“Can we pay for them forever? We’ll have to figure all of that out,” Hunt said. “We have basically a three-year federal funding mechanism that we jumped on board because it was available to us and allowed us to meet short-term goals.”
But longer-term goals, which could include building fiber-optic networks so underserved areas can access the internet at home, might be more pricey.
Hunt said the county applied for a $12.5 million grant from the Arizona Commerce Authority to bring fiber networks to 1,300 to 1,500 households in the Avra Valley and Corona de Tucson areas.
“They’re in places where an internet provider could never afford to build it because their return on investment is way too long,” he said.
Simon said bringing internet to homes is also partially achieved by helping people gain their own internet subscriptions. Several government subsidies for internet access exist, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounted broadband to low-income households.
“If there’s an area of town that has low adoption rates, but the infrastructure is there, that’s where the other piece of this is, where we’re able to help them understand how to access the internet with what’s free, then show them the Affordable Connectivity Program,” Simon said. “Now they’re participating autonomously. They don’t need our help to do it anymore.”
But those without internet access can’t take advantage of the county’s programs if they don’t know about them.
“Here’s this funding mechanism to get people to be able to get their broadband at a much lesser cost than what they’re paying right now. And what did we do as a federal government and all these companies? We posted it on the internet,” Hunt said. “They don’t have laptops, they don’t have connectivity, they don’t have the wherewithal to even understand, how do I process this thing?”
The task force is waiting for the board to approve the Cox contract, then plans to set up an outreach campaign to inform residents lacking internet access of their options to get connected. If the contract is approved, Simon said her team hopes to have the hot spots in place by May.
“We can’t just promote it online. If you’re trying to get people to connect to it who don’t get online, you got to have signs somewhere, you got to have pieces of paper somewhere. So you may see those kinds of things pop up in the community,” Simon said. “But this is a robust plan, it’s is not just about the Cox contract.”
Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at [email protected]