(TNS) — Before the coronavirus sparked shutdowns throughout North Texas, Dallas city officials greenlit a pilot program in which library patrons could borrow a mobile Wi-Fi device for up to a month.

The investment was an attempt to bridge the digital divide in Dallas, which ranks among the worst-connected for U.S. cities of its size.

At the beginning of March — just before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and businesses — 10 Dallas libraries had received 900 hot spots for people to borrow. Two weeks later, all of them were checked out.

While the pandemic has highlighted southern Dallas’ digital divide, hot spots are providing a lifeline for those without Internet access. But they don’t solve the problem of Internet infrastructure, and in some cases, may not be sufficient for all virtual needs. “There’s an infrastructure and device gap,” said Stephen Liu, director of strategy and mass scale infrastructure at Cisco, a tech company. “Although [Dallas is] dense and urban, everybody might not have access [to Internet] because it’s costly.”

The proposed city budget calls for spending $500,000 to increase the number of devices at the libraries to about 2,000.

The school district is also providing crucial help. With less than two weeks until Dallas ISD students start online classes on Sept. 8, the district has distributed more than 15,500 hot spots. Families can also pick up Chromebooks and iPads at alternating pickup locations until the end of August.

Last week, city officials launched the Digital Equity Project, a partnership with AT&T, Cisco, Presidio and CIMCON that will convert four library parking lots into hot spots. The free Wi-Fi will have the bandwidth to support video conferencing, and the city will also offer virtual workshops and children’s programming at these sites.

The libraries — Dallas West, Highland Hills, Paul Laurence Dunbar-Kiest and Prairie Creek — are also hot spot checkout locations.

Currently, the library hot spots aren’t due back until Aug. 31. That’s eight days before DISD students start school. Borrowers can’t renew them due to the high demand, but there isn’t a limit on how many times someone can borrow one.

As of mid-August, 54 people were on the hot spot wait list, said Jo Giudice, director of Dallas Public Libraries.

Library staff stopped promoting the devices when the check-out dates were extended, but Giudice expects the requests to spike in September like they did in March.

“Geographically, we knew the need was so tremendous,” Giudice said, “and there were so many homes without Internet that once people heard we had these, they were just going to go like hot cakes.”

Struggle for Service

Qiana Vance, a University of North Texas at Dallas student, borrowed a hot spot from the library in March.

The device allowed her to complete class assignments without scheduling her day around when the library was open. Then the city’s 29 libraries shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“After the spring semester, [money] got a little tight, even with my partner and my income together,” said Vance, who lives in South Dallas and works full-time as a health insurance administrator.

A few weeks ago, Vance signed up for Internet service with Spectrum. The hot spot “definitely helped out until we could get Internet.”

In Dallas, 42 percent of households lack access to high-speed Internet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.

Of the five ZIP codes (75216, 75215, 75212, 75217 and 75241) with the most households lacking Internet access, four sit south of I-30.

To address the demand, eight of the 10 libraries offering hot spots are also south of I-30.

Dallas West branch serves 75212 in West Dallas, where nearly half of the households don’t have Internet access. The other branch, Bachman Lake in northwest Dallas, is the only library serving an area where less than 40 percent of households lack Internet access.

In southern Dallas, which holds almost a third of the city’s households, nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, so cost can be a deterrent.

“Especially during COVID,” said Jordana Barton, a senior adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “They’re thinking of survival. What are they going to give up?”

Compared to other developed countries, the United States has the highest average price of monthly Internet services. South Korea averages just under $30, Germany, $35, and France, $38. Here, the average is about $66.

That’s if you can get a provider to offer Internet without bundling other services, said Barton, who studies the connection between Internet access and upward mobility.

AT&T, the nation’s leading Internet provider and a Dallas corporate citizen, offers Internet services for $10 a month for households that receive SNAP or Social Security benefits.

But some residents couldn’t get Internet even if they could afford it. Both DSL and cable Internet providers use existing infrastructure — like phone lines or coaxial cables — to reach homes.

You can’t boost infrastructure that isn’t there, Liu said. That’s why solutions like 5G and fiber are more accessible — they don’t require “digging up streets.”

Service providers are laying fiber in new neighborhoods and building 5G networks in established ones with small cells — devices added to street lights and utility poles to boost connectivity and phone reception.

With faster service comes pricier plans, which threaten to widen the divide for families that already can’t afford basic Internet.

“It has a lot to do with whether or not a company sees an area as a place where they can have great business,” Barton said. “It’s difficult to convince their shareholders to lay fiber where they don’t think they’re going to get a lot of subscription.”

Community Solutions

Dottie Smith and Jack Kelanic created Internet for All — a coalition of 40 Dallas area leaders working to provide long-term remedies for those without Internet access. Earlier this month, the coalition sent out requests for proposals to Internet providers that can offer in-home solutions that cost less than current subscription rates, which range from $40 to $60 per month.

On Thursday, the coalition announced its Get Connected campaign, which allows North Texas students to report Internet issues to their school districts and receive a solution — usually a hot spot — within a week. Families can get help by calling the Internet for All hotline at 972-925-6000.

“Our estimates show at least 75,000 families across Dallas County lack reliable, broadband Internet access right now,” Smith, the coalition’s co-chair, said in a news release. “And that makes virtual learning difficult, if not impossible.”

The coalition is also finalizing a proposal for private wireless network sites, which would allow entities that already have large Internet connections — like school districts or libraries — to amplify their signals into homes through private networks. With this solution, students would be able to sign into the DISD Internet from off-campus locations.

“That would really change the game for the students because they wouldn’t have to be doing crazy things like sitting in a car in a library parking lot to do their schoolwork,” said Smith, who is also president of The Commit Partnership, a North Texas nonprofit dedicated to education equity.

“Or using a hot spot between five people, which slows down the speed. If you’re doing Google Classroom, you’re not going to be able to participate at the same speed as your peers.”

Video conferencing platforms like Google Meet and Zoom require users to simultaneously upload and download video, which requires more bandwidth. Households with multiple children would need more than one hot spot to support a virtual school setting.

“It’s not feasible or sustainable,” said Barton, who represents the Federal Reserve Bank in the Internet for All coalition.

“When schools had to move quickly to remote learning, [hot spots were] the only choice.”

Jennifer Sanders, co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, knows that struggle well.

In June, the alliance launched the Mobile Learning Lab, a retired school bus that doubles as a hot spot. The bus’ Internet has a 300-foot radius and can accommodate 100 simultaneous users.

Those features came after CradlePoint, a wireless tech company, boosted the Mobile Learning Lab’s user capacity. The alliance had been planning the lab launch for over a year, long before the coronavirus increased the need for virtual events.

“We were not planning for 20 to 40 people to be streaming at the same time, so we were really grateful for that,” Sanders said.

The Mobile Learning Lab sits inside Gate 5 at Fair Park on most weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The alliance’s website posts the lab’s schedule weekly.

Staff members aren’t letting people inside the bus right now to practice social distancing, but they have a spaced seating area and umbrellas set up around the bus so visitors can use the free Wi-Fi.

While more hot spots are planned for southern Dallas, service providers and community initiatives are working to make the Internet more accessible for all.

“Internet for the future has to change the economics so that the Internet works for everyone, not just the privileged,” Liu said.

©2020 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.