Going Wireless for Students and Seniors in Tucson

When Collin Boyce, the City of Tucson’s Chief Information Officer, was a young boy, he left his native island country of Trinidad and Tobago with his mother and three brothers and moved to  Brooklyn, New York.

“We were poor but what my mother did for us in the summertime is send us to computer camps. And because of those camps three of us are in the IT industry today and the one we call the black sheep of the family is a neurosurgeon,” Boyce said.

He was joking about his neurosurgeon brother of course. But was dead serious about how being introduced to computer technology as a young kid led him into IT work and why it means so much to him to help build Tucson’s new municipal wireless network to provide Internet connectivity for low-income school students and seniors.

“This effort is an opportunity to give back what my mother gave me,” he said.

Tucson has hundreds of miles of fiber connecting the city’s municipal buildings. But, unlike a city like Chattanooga, which operates one of the premier Fiber-to-the-Home networks in the nation allowing America’s first Gig City to provide free high-speed Internet access to 12,000 low-income students in Chattanooga throughout the ongoing pandemic, Tucson has not built a fully fiber-optic municipal broadband network.

As the COVID crisis swept across Arizona and forced students to attend school remotely last spring, Boyce began to look for a way to ensure that the thousands of students who didn’t have Internet access at home wouldn’t be left behind. In a city with a population of about 530,000, an estimated 30 percent of city residents, or about 150,000 Tucsonans, don’t subscribe to wireline broadband, Boyce said.

Standing Up a New Network

“We needed to stand up some wireless technology,” he told us this week.

The stop-gap solution the city decided on was a Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) network that was financed using $5.1 million in CARES Act funds to leverage the city’s existing fiber infrastructure. Partnering with the IT management company Insight to help build the network and provide customer service, the construction work started in January and is already nearly finished. It involves erecting towers on fiber-connected municipal buildings and city-owned property at strategic locations across the city and installing converter devices that look like hockey pucks inside eligible households. That will allow the city to provide a free Wi-Fi connection for students and seniors who cannot afford the service the incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer.

In determining which sections of the city they wanted to target first, Boyce said, network planners used census data to determine who didn’t have connectivity. “We wanted to first pinpoint areas where 30 percent of the census tract didn’t have connectivity and lived below the poverty line,” he said. 

With 80 percent of the network build complete 300 households have been connected to the network. By mid-March that number is expected to reach 1000, but local officials have designed the network to handle everyone who needs to connect.

Internet access on the network, however, is limited to websites and apps that support remote learning and telemedicine, which is why the network is designed to prevent students from accessing adult entertainment in particular and other forms of entertainment more generally.

“We are blocking Netflix and Hulu but we do allow access to YouTube because of the educational aspects. But we are essentially building a network for remote learning and for telehealth,” Boyce said, adding that low-income seniors are also being offered free Wi-Fi.  

Boyce said with the help of the school districts, they are in the process of deploying 1000 devices to eligible students and seniors. “The school districts are also handling getting this to the seniors or anyone with health conditions that put you at risk for COVID,” he added.

But this project is more than just about providing Internet access, Boyce said. “People need devices and training in how to use computers in some cases. So we are working with local organizations to get donated devices and to train people,” Boyce said.

In addition to providing free home Wi-Fi, the city is also experimenting with extending the network onto buses and into the city’s parks, as well as connect it to the city’s parking meters to help Tucson residents quickly find available parking spots via an app.

Challenges Along the Way

But, as the saying goes, nothing worth having is easy.

“We have had our challenges,” Boyce said. “One is with our advertising mechanisms. We have advertised the availability of the network in newspapers and on TV but haven’t figured out the best way to reach people. I keep running into people who don’t know about this project.”

Also, he said, “some people think we are Big Brother but this network isn’t about surveillance. It’s really built around wanting to help kids.”

But, the most difficult challenge he said, has been dealing with opposition from the big incumbent providers.

“It’s kind of sucking the joy out of the project. They have hired lobbyists and are coming after us. For example, when we announced the project, they went to the business community and every ward and council office and ripped the project to shreds,” Boyce said.

Although Arizona doesn’t have laws that serve as barriers to prevent municipalities from building and operating broadband networks as 19 other states in the United States do, Boyce said such laws could be on the horizon in Arizona. “They (incumbent providers) don’t want us to be successful,” he said.

While such laws may or may not be introduced in Arizona, big Telco lobbyists have been successful, even in an environment where remote learning and work are commonplace, in getting state lawmakers to consider erecting barriers to municipal broadband as we’ve seen in Iowa and with legislative proposals from Congressional GOP leaders.

Despite the challenges, however, the fledgling Tucson network is moving forward, funded with CARES Act money through the end of 2021. As for the future, Boyce said, “we are hoping to get funding to keep this going.” 

When we asked him if a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home project was being considered, Boyce said: “We would love to do that but have no plans for that. At least not yet. There’s been a reluctance because no one wants to drum local providers out of town.”

While that reluctance is understandable, as we have documented in reporting on cities and towns who have built their own networks, it has not led to local providers leaving town. What it has led to is more competition, spurring those providers to improve their service and offer better prices, in addition to the social and economic benefits associated with wide-spread access to a reliable and truly high-speed city-wide network.

For timely updates, follow Christopher Mitchell or MuniNetworks on Twitter and sign up to get the Community Broadband weekly update.

Header image from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. In-line images from flickr user Ken Lund.