AISD bridging digital divide with wireless internet 'monopoles'

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District announced Thursday that it will begin installation of low-footprint broadband communications towers, or “monopoles,” at nine schools over its winter break.

Dubbed “Project Lighthouse,” the district said it will bring internet access to students in neighborhoods that the district said have “historically been limited” in access.

According to the district, internet access is a key part of academic success for students and communications with parents. The announcement came Thursday in AISD’s “AppitolNews” email newsletter, which would be inaccessible to families without access to the internet.

The district expects that work on the project will begin during AISD’s winter break (December 25 to January 5) and take three weeks per campus. It said that the construction “won’t interfere with daily drop off or pick up” of students.

The poles will be 120 feet tall and surrounded by a fenced-off 50-foot by 50-foot plot.

Where will the monopoles be?

Nine schools will be “pilot campuses” for the project: Akins Early College High School, Austin High School, Liberal Arts and Science Academy, and the Blanton, Blazier, Cook, Graham, Perez and Jordan elementary schools.

The selected pilot campuses are in AISD districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, and in zip codes 78703, 78721, 78724, 78723, 78744, 78748, 78753 and 78758.

According to the City of Austin’s 2018 “Digital Inclusion in Austin,” survey responses in those zip codes reported a lack of internet access at the following rates:

  • 78703, 0%
  • 78721, 27%
  • 78723, 0%
  • 78724, 0%
  • 78744, 0%
  • 78748, 0%
  • 78753, 4%
  • 78758, around 10%
internet access by zipcode
A map of survey responses reporting their access to the internet. (Courtesy City of Austin)

Blanton Elementary, located in zip code 78723, has proximity to 78752, a zip code where 12% of respondents reported no internet access. Similarly, Jordan Elementary sits just north of 78725 (25% lacking access).

Profit for AISD

The district also claims that the project will be cost-neutral for AISD — the towers will be built in partnership with telecom company Branch Communications, who will be allowed to install equipment for cell phone carriers.

The district hopes to make a profit from the endeavor, saying it would receive rent from Branch Communications, who would themselves charge rent from participating cell carriers.

It is not yet known which, or if any, cell carriers will seek space on the monopoles.

If it does make a profit, AISD promises to spend those funds to purchase and install “additional Austin ISD network access to students.”

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