Wi-Fi hotspots, free computers to help families access internet
COVINGTON, Ky. - The City of Covington and six partners are investing over $2.5 million in an aggressive push to demolish one of the biggest obstacles to economic opportunity for its families - the lack of ready and reliable internet access.
The Covington Connect initiative will expand wireless infrastructure to create connectivity in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of the City, as well as provide free computers for up to 1,900 families of school-age children.
"In a world where internet access is increasingly necessary to do everything from applying for a job to accessing health care to paying your rent to attending college to cashing your paycheck, too many families are effectively blocked from opportunities that many of us take for granted," Covington Mayor Joe Meyer said. "Digital access isn't a vague, symbolic concept - it's an every-day need."
The benefits of Covington Connect will reverberate throughout people's daily lives in a multitude of ways, the partners said.
The negative impact of the digital divide - defined as the gulf between those who do and don't have ready access to computers and the internet - was made painfully apparent when schools closed their doors at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March and adopted a distance-learning model. But the impact of closing the divide will be felt far beyond the realm of K-12 education into the areas of health care, employment, higher education, and finance.
Joining the City in the collaborative effort are Cincinnati Bell, the Housing Authority of Covington, Covington Independent Public Schools, local computer firms Blair Technology Group and ReGadget, and Comp-U-Dopt, a Houston-based non-profit organization.
The announcement was made during an afternoon news conference today.
Covington Connect has two parts:
The first part will expand internet access by creating about 125 Wi-Fi neighborhood access points with devices that allow connectivity in a finite area surrounding that equipment. Targeted communities include Latonia and areas to the north, but priority neighborhoods include those with high concentrations of Covington students: Eastside, Helentown, Austinburg, Peaselburg, Levassor Park, Lewisburg, and West Covington.
Cincinnati Bell will also run new fiber to neighborhoods that largely lack fiber services, with most of the work being done in Eastside and Peaselburg.
Simultaneously, the Housing Authority of Covington (HAC) is contracting with Cincinnati Bell to connect apartments in its biggest complexes -- Latonia Terrace and City Heights - to high-speed Wi-Fi.
"This means that the majority of residents living in those communities will be able to access the internet, 24/7, for school, work, or resources -- any time, day or night -- from the comfort of their own homes," HAC Deputy Director Chris Bradburn said.
Meyer said costs and funding commitments currently consist of rough estimates:
- The City has committed to using $1 million to $1.25 million in federal-state Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the infrastructure and five years' service costs.
- Cincinnati Bell estimates the fiber infrastructure will cost the company approximately $700,000.
- HAC has committed to using over $400,000 in CARES Act funding for upfront infrastructure costs and monthly service fees over the next three to five years.
- And Covington public school officials have committed to contributing $250,000.
"Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden use of distance learning and the possibility of future remote learning, we know that digital equity for our students is more imperative than ever,'' said Covington Superintendent Alvin Garrison.
"Many of our students have personal devices (like cell phones) but face disadvantages as a large number of our families do not have internet access in their homes," Garrison said. "That makes it quite challenging to access and complete online assignments. However, this project and partnership with the City will create a more even digital playing field for our students. I am very excited about the possibilities. This could be a real game changer for our Covington families.''
Currently, public Wi-Fi is available only in the downtown Renaissance District through Cincinnati Bell's partnership with the City and Renaissance Covington.
"The current challenges we face as a community clearly demonstrate that internet connectivity is mission-critical to access jobs, educational opportunities, and health-care resources," said Leigh Fox, President and CEO of Cincinnati Bell. "We appreciate the City of Covington's leadership in addressing digital inequity, and we are proud to be part of the Covington Connect initiative."
Meyer said the City hoped to have the entire Covington Connect project finished by Christmas, although some areas will be finished months earlier. Some of the locations picked for "hotspots" already have fiber, and some don't, he said.
He praised Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for his decision announced May 20 to allocate $300 million in CARES Act funding for local governments in Kentucky.
"Without him, the Covington Connect initiative would not be happening," Meyer said. "Covington is determined to emerge from this pandemic not shell-shocked and shattered but better positioned to help our families strengthen their futures."
But internet access is only part of the reason for the "digital divide." Another challenge is lack of computers.
To address that problem, two Latonia-based computer firms that share leadership - Blair Technology Group and ReGadget - are partnering with Comp-U-Dopt to distribute free desktop computers, Chromebooks, and other devices to up to 1,900 families of Covington schoolchildren.
The companies have previously partnered on similar projects in large cities like Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans and Washington D.C., said Kurt Reynolds, co-owner of ReGadget and CFO of Blair Tech.
The local companies recondition gently used desktops, laptops and Chromebooks, among other things, with Blair Tech being the nation's No. 1 authorized refurbisher of Microsoft products.
Comp-U-Dopt will raise funds - it's estimated that $400,000 will be needed - and set up an on-line registration system for families. The computers will be distributed at one of the companies' locations in Latonia during a one-day event currently scheduled for September, Reynolds said.
"Having partnered on similar projects around the country, we asked Comp-U-Dopt to work with us to bring the same concept to our home city," Reynolds said. "We saw a need here and knew we could tap our expertise to make a huge imprint on our surrounding community. We're excited about the opportunities this partnership will create for families in Covington, especially with the expansion of Wi-Fi access."
Along with the computers, families receive two-year service agreements.
To date, Comp-U-Dopt has distributed over 17,000 devices to students in need and is on pace to distribute 11,000 more in three months. The organization has been featured on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon with the endorsement of NBA superstar Russell Westbrook. For information or to donate, see www.compudopt.org
"It is incredibly exciting to embark on a partnership which actually could solve the digital divide in the community," said Comp-U-Dopt CEO Megan Steckly. "Partners who join our efforts to raise the $400,000 needed for this project will be part of making history and a meaningful impact on the lives of residents in need. Projects like this demonstrate how solvable this issue really is for the community."
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