RICHMOND — The West Contra Costa school district has an ambitious plan to distribute a tablet computer to each of its 30,000 students starting next year. It’s a bold vision, considering that thousands of students have migrated to charter schools over the past decade, resulting in less money for the district.
But there’s a small hiccup: Close to 20 percent of households in Richmond, the biggest city in the district, don’t have an Internet connection at home, according to the 2014 Census.
In central Richmond, the number is closer to 40 percent, meaning 7,000 households in the city can’t easily go online to pay their bills, search for jobs or access the dozens of apps, programs and games meant to supplement what children are learning at school.
The school district, in conjunction with the city and a group of nonprofits, says it’s working to close the gaps in coverage, starting with the Iron Triangle neighborhood, home to predominately Latino and African-American families. The district is in the midst of launching a fiber project that will allow the city to install antennas on top of some of its schools, providing a strong signal to not only classrooms but approximately 300 homes in the surrounding area.
“We want to level the playing field and plan to provide free wireless to the neighborhood within three years,” said Mary Phillips, the district’s chief technology officer.
Meanwhile, Richmond is working to expand its own fiber optic network — which uses lighter cables that are able to process data at faster rates — but the city doesn’t have enough money.
Instead, it’s relying on private and state grants to finance the job, pulling together the funding piece by piece.
“You really need to build the broadband backbone and then connect the dots: the schools and the individual community locations that don’t have Internet right now,” said Sue Hartman, IT director for the city.
The effort will get a $1 million boost from Chevron, paid out over the next three years, part of a community benefits agreement secured in exchange for greenlighting a refinery-modernization project, scheduled to start next year.
Meanwhile, a patchwork of nonprofit organizations has formed in recent years to address the challenge, but collaboration has sometimes been tricky. Most are used to working independently and don’t always share information, said Jennifer Lyle, executive director of Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative, a coalition of organizations working to connect residents of the Iron Triangle neighborhood to critical services.
When it comes to the Internet, the group has started giving out “hotspots” — pocket-size devices that create an instant Internet connection — at $10.99 a month. So far, it has given out 60 such devices, according to Lyle.
“It’s a small piece, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.
Another player is the Internet Archive, a San Francisco organization that operates a free online repository of books, research papers, audio, video and software. It has set up two towers in Richmond that provide a Wi-Fi signal but requires residents to install their own repeaters on the roof, meaning that technical know-how is essential. About 225 people a day in Richmond go online with the help of Internet Archive, a drop in the sea of digital access.
The city has also tried to educate low-income residents who aren’t yet online to Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which provides affordable Internet service to families with at least one child who qualifies for the National School Lunch Program.
People working to bridge the digital divide in Richmond have found Internet Essentials frustrating. Among their complaints: Spanish-speaking service representatives who don’t tell callers about the program, families who are made ineligible because of disputes over bills, and representatives who try to upsell other services even when customers call inquiring about the specific service.
“Comcast has been unethical in the way they work with low-income families,” Lyle said. “It’s been a challenge.”
Comcast was required by the federal government to create a program for low-income customers as part of its 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal.
Comcast spokesman Bryan Byrd said the company has made numerous changes to the program in recent years, including creating a dedicated call center for both English and Spanish speakers, adding an online application process that can be used on any Internet-enabled device, including a phone, and providing amnesty to families who have a past-due balance older than one year.
“A lot of those concerns have been addressed,” Byrd said. “We have a 23 percent penetration rate in California and are one of the few companies that even have such a program.”
Phillips, the school district’s IT director, says she remains optimistic that all students will soon be able to go online to do their homework. But just in case, some programs will be downloadable onto a computer’s hard drive and accessed without a connection, she said.
Lyle is also optimistic that at least children living in the Iron Triangle neighborhood will be able to connect by the start of next school year.
“It makes me so angry that there are so many barriers to getting online, but many other communities have struggled with this,” she said. “The fact that the city is even trying to do this is commendable.”