SCHENECTADY — City school district officials knew they would have to confront the technology gap even before the pandemic slammed into the U.S. in early March.
District officials even briefly considered dissembling the school’s computer lab and redistributing equipment to students as they pivoted to online-only learning.
Weeks later, the City Council spiked $2 million in previously-approved capital funds to build out the city’s Wi-Fi network, citing financial uncertainty inflicted by the pandemic.
As a result, work has come to standstill, and just 10 percent of the proposed network has been completed.
Now, City Hall is making a last-ditch effort to lawmakers to open their purse strings for the $2 million that would allow for the network’s completion.
Signals Superintendent John Coluccio renewed his pitch to lawmakers last week, highlighting the benefit to homebound students.
“We’ve been trying to work with the school district to try to understand their needs and we want to try to expand that as much as possible,” Coluccio said.
Work is split into two zones.
Zone A includes 18 miles of fiber optic cable running through the Stockade, East Front Street, Vale, parts of Central State Street and Goose Hill, while plans for Zone B call for 25 miles of cable in Hamilton Hill, parts of Mont Pleasant, Central State Street, Eastern Avenue, GE Realty Plot and the Union Triangle neighborhoods.
City Council previously allocated $5 million and the city has roughly $2.6 million in the bank for the effort, which has a $5.4 million price tag.
But despite having funds to resume at least some of the work, the city hasn’t done so because the additional $2 million will allow them to commence work on both zones at once, allowing them to strike a better deal with contractors.
Coluccio floated cost savings of up to 20 percent.
“We’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on something like that hoping to get the dollars to do the whole thing,” Coluccio said.
The network has already been extended into Mont Pleasant via a handful of access points on Crane and Orchard streets, as well as Francis Avenue and near the city’s Fire Station No. 3 on Third Avenue, where city state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli touched down last summer to release a report hailing Schenectady as a model for other localities to follow when it comes to deploying technological initiatives.
Yet without lawmaker approval, some $1 million in state grant funding for working in the neighborhood may also be in jeopardy because the city won’t be able to complete the work required to unlock those funds.
“If we don’t lay the groundwork to connect the devices that are going in those areas, then we can’t show that we’re really doing the work,” Coluccio said.
CLOSING THE GAP
Mayor Gary McCarthy has made technological advances as part of the Smart Cities initiative a keystone of his tenure.
“Smart Cities” broadly refers to the use of technology to better provide government services, from the emerging Wi-Fi network to sensors that monitor traffic patterns, pedestrian counts and emissions, for instance, or street surfaces during snowfall (and potholes once winter thaws).
But the pandemic has cast the need for Wi-Fi into sharper focus as more people work from home and 7th through 12th graders at Schenectady City School District have gone to full remote access.
“Poverty is still a major problem in the city of Schenectady and education is the equalizer,” McCarthy said in an August interview. “And the opportunity to provide those opportunities is equally important for the long-term goals of the city.”
Lawmakers acknowledged the benefits.
“This is going to be really helpful in terms of our families that need this access in order to do their school work and other types of things,” said city Councilwoman Carmel Patrick.
City school district officials say expanding the network will build on existing efforts to close the technology gap for families who have trouble getting online.
To date, the district has distributed 600 “MiFi” hotspots to students which allow them to get online. An additional 283 requests have yet to be fulfilled after a survey conducted before the fall semester revealed 534 parents said they lacked access to the internet (the survey was not broken out by neighborhood).
“These numbers fluctuate as family circumstances change,” said Karen Corona, district spokesperson. “But once we receive the request, we continuously work to connect with and help families overcome challenges of transportation, work schedules and other things to get the hotspots in their hands.”
Yet the hotspots themselves are not a perfect solution: Some models can be more reliable than others, and the devices can be flaky, particularly when multiple people are using them — especially in neighborhoods like Hamilton Hill where reception is already patchy.
“The Smart Cities network would give [students] more stable and consistent internet,” said Chris Pietrantonio, innovation and technology officer for the Schenectady City School District. “To extend into those neighborhoods would be a game-changer for those students.”
Despite a hiccup last month that saw a delay in the distribution of Chromebooks over what officials characterized as supply chain issues, every student now has a device — even if it’s not a Chromebook, per se, but rather an Android-based unit.
“Any person who has asked for a device has been supplied one,” Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said on Wednesday.
William Rivas, executive director of COCOA House, said the Chromebook snafu illustrates the need for a city network, particularly for low-income students.
He estimated two or three students of the 10 he’s currently working with at the after-school tutoring program lack a home internet connection.
“We’re all aware of how poverty impacts people of color in a time of need,” Rivas said. “It’s obvious why something like this would be useful.”
The city’s Wi-Fi network averages between 700,000 and 1 million web page hits per day, evidence that reveals the ongoing need, Coluccio said.
“We’ve made tremendous progress and want to keep our momentum going as it’s a service very well received by our residents, especially during the pandemic,” Coluccio said.
The emerging network is being constructed in tandem with National Grid as the provider swaps out 4,400 street lights with LED units, efforts the city said will provide energy savings.
Following pandemic-induced delays, work on that effort is expected to be completed in 2021, Coluccio said.
Lawmakers reached a tentative budget deal on Thursday and indicated they would allocate the funds.
“I think we are, for the most part, supportive of that program, Mr. Mayor,” said city Councilman Ed Kosiur. “So I hope you walk with confidence as we are supporting that program for you and those funds.”
City Council members are poised to vote on the spending plan Monday.