Recent Wi-Fi projects connect nearly 10,000 McAllen students

McAllen ISD is expecting nearly 10,000 of its 21,650 students to have wireless internet access provided by the city of McAllen or Hidalgo County in the near future, connectivity projects augmented through district Wi-Fi and thousands of hot spots available to students.

In the south end of the district, the administration expects the city’s $3.2 million free Wi-Fi project to service roughly 7,000 students. To the north, free Wi-Fi programs planned by the county are expected to service more than 2,500 students.

Over 10,000 Wi-Fi hot spots, which the district began receiving and distributing last week, are expected to fill in the gaps.

“This is one key component that we all felt — the city, the county, obviously the school district administration, parents — that we’ve been really trying to find a solution that’s most viable. And it seems like the collaboration between the county, the school district and the city, we found one,” Trustee Sam Saldivar said at the board’s Sept. 14 meeting.

Speaking to the board about the city’s ongoing Wi-Fi rollout at that meeting, Assistant Superintendent for District Operations Arely Benavides said the administration calculated the number of students that would be affected by that project by comparing data from the district’s transportation system with installation maps from the city.

Benavides said the 17 Wi-Fi zones the district mapped are home to 7,002 students — students who officials hope will be able to take advantage of the free internet.

Although city of McAllen IT director Robert Acosta didn’t dispute that figure, he did indicate that factors may influence how many of those students are actually able to take advantage of the Wi-Fi.

Some students might be cared for by family members outside of the zone while learning virtually, he said. Also, Wi-Fi equipment can pretty much only be installed on wooden poles, which may lead to some dead spots in service.

“You’ll see gaps in some of the maps that was presented, and those may be that those poles are what we call primary poles. They have electricity that’s passing through them that we cannot install on,” Acosta said. “So there are going to be some gaps in neighborhoods, and that’s where the MiFis help tremendously.”

The board also approved a memorandum of understanding with the county at the meeting, green-lighting the installation of a 75-foot, free-standing tower at Rayburn Elementary and a 20- to 30-foot rooftop tower at Perez Elementary.

Precinct 4 Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres said the equipment should serve an area that’s home to about 2,500 students, 1,244 of whom are internet challenged.

“That’s the biggest bang for our buck, based on what the school district has presented to us,” she said.

According to Torres, the county is proposing to build 29 towers in total, several of which will be in Precinct 4: three at county facilities, three at Edinburg CISD facilities and the equipment at Rayburn and Perez.

“These towers are long term, they will serve students in that area for a very, very long time,” she said.

Drew Lenz with Frontera Consulting, a company working with the city of McAllen on its WiFi project, addressed health concerns about all the Wi-Fi equipment and the patchwork of free internet around town, saying the connectivity infrastructure is safe.

“This is three times less than the power of a cellphone that you hold up to the side of your face. It’s one billionth of the power of a nightlight, I mean this is from the perspective of electromagnetic frequency, the National Health Institute and the FDA all approve usage of things like this…” he said.