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L.A. Schools Roll Out $50M Broadband Initiative

The Los Angeles Unified School District has negotiated bulk discounted rates with AT&T and Charter Communications. Between them, the two providers should essentially be able to cover the entire L.A. Unified geography.

Los Angeles school officials this week announced a $50 million effort to provide adequate Internet to all families in the nation’s second-largest school system — the latest try at closing a persistent digital divide that has limited learning for students whose families can’t afford to pay for high-speed Wi-Fi access.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) estimates that about 20 percent of students — about 90,000 children — either still lack broadband service or don’t have enough bandwidth to meet academic needs, despite an initial emergency rush at the onset of distance learning two years ago to remedy the problem. The new initiative is targeted to reach all of them for one year using short-term federal funding to cover about 96 percent of the cost. It looks as though federal resources also will be available for a second year, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a kickoff ceremony Tuesday at Bell High School.

The school system will offer access both to connect families and to demonstrate the necessity of this connection to federal and state officials, with the hope that permanent funding would be provided.

“Connectivity and universal ubiquitous access to digital content anytime anywhere, whether in school, in the community, in the park or the public library, is a civil right that must be delivered to our generation,” Carvalho said.

A separate district effort, also announced Tuesday, would provide students with a computer they could keep at home. About 60,000 students would benefit in the initial stage, officials said. Home computers are as necessary as textbooks, said school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who supports the project.

The Internet access initiative, which has been in the planning and piloting phase for more than a year, received a formal launch in a low-income neighborhood that has exemplified both the challenges faced by families and some past success in district efforts to help them.

Nearly one in five low-income households in a recent survey reported going without Internet for extensive periods, citing cost as the main reason for disconnecting.

Compared with many schools, Bell High distributed Internet hot spots to students relatively quickly, but the hot spots had limited bandwidth, and different brands of hot spots worked better in some areas than others. The hot spots were almost useless in a few areas.

Providers offered discounts early in the pandemic, but these offers expired or provided only limited bandwidth or weren’t available in all areas. Parents with limited English skills sometimes had difficulty accessing these offers, and some families could not afford the service even with discounts.

In the current project, L.A. Unified has negotiated bulk discounted rates with AT&T and Charter Communications. Between them, the two providers should essentially be able to cover the entire L.A. Unified geography. Depending on the locale and bandwidth needs, L.A. Unified will pay about $15 to $65 per month per household. Most families have a cable hookup already and would plug into a provided digital box. But installation is also available when necessary, a cost the district will pick up, which could range up to about $300, said district Chief Information Officer Soheil Katal.

Independent research indicates that more people in California have a high-speed connection than ever: Nearly 91 percent of its households have high-speed Internet access, according to recent statewide survey results released by USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund.

Still, 16 percent of low-income residents are unconnected and 10 percent depend on smartphones, which provide an inferior connection for such tasks as schoolwork or attending class online.

California has the highest number of people living in poverty of any state, despite having the fifth-largest economy in the world. Income is a key determinant in whether a household has Internet access, the USC report noted: 29 percent of households earning less than $40,000 a year have no Internet connection or have access only through a smartphone.

The digital divide is both an urban and a rural issue: 19 percent of L.A. County and 20 percent of Central Valley households either have no connection or rely on smartphones. Nearly a quarter of Latinos are unconnected or restricted to smartphones, compared to 5 percent of white people. Digital inequity is greatest among Latinos who speak only Spanish: 25 percent have no connection and 10 percent rely on smartphones.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.