More than 7,900 San Antonio Independent School District students will have free internet access at home once the city installs cellular towers at five West Side campuses, part of the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative launched in 2020.

The SAISD board approved an agreement with the City of San Antonio earlier this week to place towers at five campuses and San Juan Brady Park. These towers will build upon coverage already provided by five towers on city property, such as fire stations and libraries, said Kenneth Thompson, chief information technology officer.

The Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative aims to bring internet access to San Antonio students within 50 priority neighborhoods identified through a digital inclusion survey completed by the city in 2020. By connecting students with their school district Wi-Fi in their homes, the initiative circumvents existing state legislation that prevents a city from treating Wi-Fi as a public utility.

In San Antonio, about 20% of households lack access to broadband internet at home. When schools switched to virtual instruction at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, districts purchased and distributed hotspots to students so they could continue learning at home.

SAISD deployed 16,827 hotspots, but they have data limits and get lost easily, Thompson said, calling them a “short-term solution.” By installing the towers and distributing routers to households, the city and SAISD created a more permanent solution to barriers to internet access.

“It was a welcome opportunity,” Thompson said. “It has made San Antonio the envy of colleagues across the country because a lot of people have been trying to do this.”

SAISD expects construction of the towers to be finished before June and then will work on a community engagement campaign, Thompson said.

In addition to SAISD, the city is working with Harlandale and Edgewood ISDs to provide internet access to about 9,800 students’ homes, said Calendaria Mendoza, city digital inclusion administrator. Once the towers are built, SAISD will have 11 towers, HISD will have 14 and EISD will have 12.

“All three of the school districts are embracing this as part of their long-term strategy to have connectivity consistently provided to the students from the convenience of their homes,” she said.

Officials estimate the project will cost $27 million — paid for by the city — to construct the towers and provide households with routers.

SAISD will pay $103,950 the first year for network support services, but that cost increases to $245,700 the next two years, when the district starts paying for subscriber licenses, according to the agreement. The total cost for the fourth year will be $359,100, including $113,400 for an extended warranty.

The towers will be placed at five schools in the Lanier High School feeder pattern: Barkley-Ruiz Elementary, Crockett Academy, Margil Elementary, Ogden Elementary and Sarah S. King Elementary. With these additional towers, the network will provide internet service to 7,935 students across 20 campuses.

Thompson said these towers will be the “last piece of that puzzle” of continuous internet access for students, who already have service at school and on buses. If the initiative is successful, SAISD will roll out service to the rest of its communities.

“Our students need access. The learning experience for our students here in San Antonio is not between 8-4,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s just the right thing to do. Anything that I can do to assist them in their journey, give them a leg up, is the right thing to do.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.