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Pilot program could bring free broadband to East Waco

Pilot program could bring free broadband to East Waco

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As much as La Monica Dunn values printed books, she said broadband Wi-Fi blanketing East Waco would open doors currently closed to residents without internet service at home.

As Dunn filled out a job application with a local school district in East Waco Library’s computer lab, she said she approaches technology with a healthy skepticism and does not think children should grow up depending on computers for everything. But looking back 30 years, when she was a young mother who had just graduated high school, having the options of online classes and job applications that come with a reliable internet connection would have helped.

“When I graduated from high school, I was ready, so ready to leave, because I felt like there were not a lot of opportunities here,” Dunn said. “And it’s good to see now that these students have an opportunity, because my choice at the time was either to go to school or drop out.”

The city of Waco hired True North Consulting Group to explore the cost of a pilot program to install free broadband Wi-Fi internet service throughout East Waco, where about 40% of residents do not have internet access at home, according to census data.

Like many people visiting East Waco Library’s computer lab, Dunn was there to fill out a job application. The educator said she started to see during the pandemic the value in the flexibility online learning can afford, but hopes kids coming to the library for help with technology will be reintroduced to physical books and learn to appreciate them just as much.

Alysha Suchaski, branch manager of East Waco Library, is often the one helping. She spends much of her time assisting library patrons with computers, teaching them on the fly how to avoid the pitfalls of Google, spam, identity theft and sketchy websites while helping them file taxes, order new social security cards and apply for programs like the city’s COVID-19 rent relief programs.

“I feel like it’s not as much recreational (computer use). People honestly need help doing regular important, necessary, mandatory tasks,” Suchaski said.

East Waco Library has the least traffic of any Waco-McLennan County Public Library branch, but a large chunk of people who visit each month come for the internet access, Suchaski said. From January to May, the number of people who logged onto a library computer was about half of the total number of visitors.

Guests can log on for an hour at a time, and on busy days all of the computers can fill up. That was before the library had to remove a few of its 12 computers from the floor to allow for social distancing just as the need for internet service became even greater.

Suchaski created the employment station, a room equipped with a computer and webcam for remote interviews, when she noticed how many people were coming in to work on their resumes and apply for jobs.

“Workforce Solutions (a governmental workforce services nonprofit) were offering training sessions over Zoom and stuff like that, but I realized even though they’re offering that, our patrons can’t get that because we didn’t have Zoom-enabled computers available to the public,” Suchaski said. “I noticed some people would be doing interviews out in our parking lot in their car, because they have the free Wi-Fi and privacy in their car, but we couldn’t offer them a place in the library.”

She said she also saw kids with parents in their cars, trying to finish homework that would have taken longer than the one-hour sessions the library allows on its computer stations.

She said there is a need for broadband, but there is also a need for technology literacy programs for people who do not already have that access at home.

“Even though I think broadband is a great addition, especially to this community, we’ll still need to be more aware of the needs there will be after that,” Suchaski said.

True North Consulting CEO Russ Johnson said the cost of the pilot program cannot be determined until businesses respond to a request for information on potential approaches for the project.

If a utility company is willing to partner with the city it would bring down the cost significantly, but if the city sets out to build LTE wireless towers to support broadband it would cost “several million” dollars, Johnson said.

“For hundreds of years people get up and get dressed, go into a building and sit in a chair, and then come home,” Johnson said. “The thought that we need some other bulk methodology to educating kids is something that’s slowly evolved over time.”

The pandemic threw everyone’s technological blind spots into sharp relief, and the result was a mad rush to figure out how to work and learn from home, he said. Johnson said internet access has been a crucial utility for years, just like electricity and running water, but the widespread need caught companies, school districts and nations completely off guard.

“Everyone was reaching out to every resource that they could imagine to figure out how to survive, so to speak,” Johnson said.

Johnson said if successful, the program could serve as a launching point for more widespread coverage in Waco.

“It was just an area of need that the city identified,” Johnson said. “This is where we’re going to start, but it’s absolutely a starting point, not a not a stopping point.”

Once True North receives an initial response from businesses, the firm will issue a follow-up request for proposals or quotes.

“Ultimately, as the city’s consultant our job is to see this from cradle to grave, at least for this proof of concept, and to see the city through a citywide connectivity solution or system if the city decides to expand this project to a broader scope,” Johnson said.

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