WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Calling it a "game changer," Palm Beach County school leaders on Thursday outlined a major plan to deliver free high-speed, high-quality Internet to tens of thousands of students in need.
"This project is life changing," said Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy about the WiFi Mesh Network. "It's a game changer in education and access."
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The WiFi Mesh Network is a partnership between the school district, county, and local municipalities to help children who have limited technology at home.
The School District of Palm Beach County said thousands of students, for many reasons, did not have access to affordable or free WiFi when the district was forced to switch to online distance learning last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The pandemic presented many challenges, which we as a district and as a county are turning into opportunities to improve equity and access for every child in Palm Beach County," Fennoy said.
To alleviate the so-called "digital divide" in the short-term, the district provided impacted students with T-Mobile hotspots and Internet sponsorships through Comcast.
But for a long-term solution, the district is currently constructing the WiFi Mesh Network, a 50 square-mile project to serve thousands of students in Lake Worth Beach and beyond.
"What this means for a student who currently lives in a house with many people and may not have access to the Internet is just an opening of the world to them," said Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield, whose district covers Lake Worth Beach.
As part of the project, crews are connecting fiber optic cables to radios, which are then installed on the tops of power poles to provide a WiFi signal to communities in need.
Families will be provided with a WiFi extender to capture the signal and broadcast the Internet connection within their home.
The network is being paid for through federal CARES Act funding, as well as community partners like the Miami Dolphins and the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County.
"Families who grow up without access to the Internet earn less, learn less, and live less," said James Gavrilos, the president and CEO of the Education Foundation.
Gavrilos added that the WiFi Mesh Network will help families beyond just education.
"We're talking about families who can now do telemedicine, apply for jobs, apply for government benefits," Gavrilos said. "We have opened an entire world of opportunity to 25,000 students comprising roughly 15,000 families."
Lake Worth Beach Mayor Pam Triolo said that of the roughly 7,500 students enrolled in four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school within city limits, around one-third of them lack Internet access at home.
"This means that a third of all of our local students risk falling on the wrong side of the digital divide," Triolo said.
According to Triolo, 5,353 students in Lake Worth Beach alone will receive WiFi extenders to access the network.
Fennoy explained more details about the WiFi Mesh Network in a video message to parents last week.
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For more information on the project, click here.