Lanier High School sophomore Abner Villanueva held in his hands Friday a device that will help him complete his homework assignments by giving him access to what he lacks at home – an internet connection.

San Antonio Independent School District students often need the internet to do their homework, and even to read their textbooks, but more than three-quarters of Lanier High School students lack internet access at home, according to the district. Villanueva and about 40 of his peers at Lanier received free Wi-Fi hotspots or LTE-powered smartphones on Friday as part of a districtwide initiative to bridge the digital divide, a phenomenon marked by disparate access to the internet caused by a combination of infrastructure issues and poverty.

SAISD plans to deliver more than 1,100 devices to Lanier students as part of the initiative, made possible by the 1Million Project Foundation, which seeks to provide 1 million high school students who lack reliable internet access with mobile devices and free high-speed internet. Once the rollout is complete, more than 5,000 eligible SAISD students will have received devices through the program.

“It’s no longer about giving somebody a luxury item,” Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. “It is about basic needs, and our students need to be competitive. If I’m pushing them to go to a university or even the Alamo Colleges system, we’ve got to make sure they have those basic needs met.”

(right) Lanier High School student Abner Villanueva picks up his internet-enabled device from Superintendent Pedro Martinez.

About 40 percent of the district’s high school students lack reliable internet access at home, according to a district survey.

The students were required to receive parental permission to receive either a free hotspot device or a smartphone and 10 gigabytes of high-speed LTE data per month while they complete high school. LTE users average download speeds of about 34 megabits per second and uploads speeds of about 10 megabits per second, according to a 2019 speed test report by Ookla. The Federal Communications Commission’s consumer guide states a 25 megabit-per-second connection is required to stream an ultra-high-definition video.

Students open internet-connected devices provided by the 1Million Project Foundation.

The devices are equipped with free content filters that comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act and block adult content and malware.

In addition to having poor connectivity at home, SAISD students often lack fast internet connections at school because of poor internet infrastructure. That’s why SAISD is building out a 80-mile network of fiber-optic cable to connect each district campus and office as part of one central high-speed network operated by the district. The project, funded by nearly $15 million in federal and state dollars, is slated for a June 2020 completion.

Villanueva said his parents simply can’t afford an internet subscription. He said being able to access the internet at home will allow him to complete his homework assignments without having to go to a McDonald’s restaurant or use his laptop near a school building to access Wi-Fi.

A lot of our homework [requires us to do] research online,” he said. “We need that internet access at home, and most of us don’t have it.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.