Imperial County: Closing the Homework Gap in a California Desert Community

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Digital Beat

Imperial County: Closing the Homework Gap in a California Desert Community

Jon Sallet

In communities where too many people have no access to broadband infrastructure, investing in connections to community anchor institutions is an intermediate step that can pay huge public dividends. Imperial County, located in the sparsely populated desert region of southeastern California, is an exciting example.

Joining forces to connect community

When relying on a single telecommunications provider and its outdated technology, Imperial County school districts, higher-education institutions, and government agencies had limited access to broadband infrastructure. So they joined forces, forming the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority (IVTA ) to create a high-performance data network for a fraction of the cost of standard telecommunications lines.

IVTA entered into an agreement with the local power and water district to use shared fiber-optic cable between communities, along with poles, towers, and other resources, to create the fiberoptic communications network. Today, IVTA provides connectivity to 120 total sites, including thirty community anchor institutions in twelve communities.

With this infrastructure, not only can Imperial County’s Office of Education (ICOE ) fulfill its mission of providing “exemplary support and leadership in technology to schools, districts, and the community, [which] is critical to student success,” it is able to connect to the California Research and Education Network (CalREN), a high-speed, high-bandwidth network linking county offices of education, school districts, K-12 schools, community colleges, and institutions of higher learning throughout the state of California.

But the benefits of the infrastructure go well past just connecting buildings. In a region where 74 percent of families qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, thousands of kids do not have internet access once they leave the classroom. Low-income students disproportionately feel the impact of the “homework gap,” and this disadvantage jeopardizes students’ performance, grades, and graduation rates.

To close that gap, the Imperial County Office of Education teamed up with local school districts to start the BorderLink project, which relies on LTE technology to bring wireless internet connectivity to students in eleven communities, including Brawley, Calexico, Calipatria, El Centro, Heber, Holtville, Imperial, Niland, Seeley, Winterhaven, and Westmorland. Students, teachers, and others are provided devices to ensure broadband access follows them home. And IVTA and ICOE partner with a host of community organizations on computer literacy as well.

In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded IVTA eight Community Facilities Grants totaling $840,000. IVTA allocated an additional $360,000 for a total of $1.2 million toward BorderLink, which was the focus of the grant proposals. “These grants will allow us to expand access in some of our most underserved communities. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that this access will bring to students and families,” said Imperial County Superintendent of Schools Todd Finnell.

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Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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