Hunched over the kitchen table, pencil in hand, Nelsi Tatiana Chaver Lopez purses her lips as she waits for a Google search to load on her phone.
In the glow of a setting sun on a Thursday afternoon just before summer break, the 12-year-old is trying to finish her science homework before her three younger siblings start bugging her.
Homework is an uphill battle for any middle-schooler. But it’s especially difficult in Tatiana’s home, a one-story house without consistent internet access that her family shares with another immigrant family in southwest Houston.
Their households tally three adults and seven children — with three working phones between them and no desktop computers, laptops or tablets.
“Having a computer and a faster signal would be a huge help,” said Tatiana, a seventh-grader at Houston ISD’s Billy Reagan K-8 Educational Center. “It’s very frustrating to do homework using just a phone.”
Spurred by the pandemic in 2020, the Texas Education Agency established Operation Connectivity, dedicated to closing the so-called digital divide and helping families like Tatiana’s. The agency set an ambitious goal of delivering e-learning devices and high-speed, at-home internet access to every Texas student, in part by using federal COVID funds to pay for discounted products.
Three years later, the at-home internet plans have fallen apart.
Data obtained by the Houston Landing shows that only 19 of the 1,207 public school districts across the state opted into the program from 2021-2022. In all, a little over 3,000 students had their home connected to high-speed broadband — less than half a percent of the estimated 2 million Texas students in need.
Today, the program is dormant.
TEA officials and state education leaders said the broadband initiative wasn’t as wide-reaching as the agency hoped, in part, due to communication and coordination issues mid-pandemic. Gaby Rowe, Operation Connectivity’s project lead, acknowledged their ambitions were lofty.
“There is a public school student in every square inch of Texas. It’s not easy to reach them all,” Rowe said. “We need to get those communities motivated and galvanized to participate in these programs.”
While the TEA’s efforts highlighted the need to close the digital divide, the disparity in access to at-home internet remains. In Harris County alone, an estimated 180,000 out of 1.5 million households lack the needed infrastructure or cannot afford to pay for high-speed internet, according to the county’s Office of Broadband.
“It was very well-intentioned, but if you build it out fast enough and folks aren’t ready to use it, then they won’t,” said Greg Conte, the director of the Texas Broadband Development Office. “The pandemic didn’t allow for that (learning curve).”
Breaking down Operation Connectivity
As the first anniversary of the pandemic approached in 2021, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath started floating a pioneering proposal.
He envisioned the state obtaining heavily discounted at-home internet access for students’ families, with districts responsible for identifying those in need and picking up the tab. State education leaders thought districts could initially cover broadband costs using federal COVID stimulus money.
Parents and guardians wouldn’t need to pay anything or provide their personal information; they would only need to set up installation. State officials estimated there were about 800,000 children in Texas public schools who lived in homes equipped for broadband internet, but their families couldn’t afford it or didn’t get it.
The idea, however, never took off.
Rowe said the state held nearly 375 individual meetings with districts, hosted extensive webinars and set up a multilingual portal for families to sign up by paper, phone or computer. The program was available to anyone who didn’t have at-home internet service, and qualified for SNAP benefits or free or federally reduced lunches.
Few districts bought into the program. In the Houston area, only three districts signed up students for internet access in 2021-22: HISD, La Porte Independent School District and The Varnett Public Schools, which combined to connect about 400 families.
Dianne Borrenson, the executive director of the Texas Education Technology Leaders, praised the TEA’s efforts, but admitted the pandemic was chaos for Texas public schools.
“The TEA has good intentions, but communications doesn’t always flow as efficiently, especially during COVID,” she said.
Even when state officials found interest in Operation Connectivity, they encountered problems getting families hooked up.
The 19 participating school districts reported receiving about 18,700 applications from families for access. Only 17% had their application approved by their district and their home connected to high-speed broadband.
In HISD, which saw 372 of 3,636 applications approved, district officials found that not all applicants used addresses that matched the district’s student records, HISD spokesperson Sam Joseph wrote in an email.
“Comcast and HISD attempted to contact all approved applicants to work out the details of the fixed broadband installation, and ultimately, 372 students were connected,” he wrote.
What comes next?
With Operation Connectivity largely out of the picture, other federal, state and local agencies are working on their own initiatives.
Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel wants to raise the standard broadband speed — 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for uploads, or 25/3 Mbps — to 120/20 Mbps. Most experts agree that the current standard is profoundly out of date.
Updating to the latter speed is the difference between one individual in a household being able to log onto a patchy Zoom meeting, and a family being able to stream buffer-free Netflix movies, conduct Zoom calls and play online video games on multiple devices.
But Rosenworcel’s measure requires a vote, and a political stalemate between FCC commissioners and pressure from the telecommunications lobby has kept the standard broadband speed locked since 2015.
Under Conte, the state’s broadband office is in the process of formally challenging the FCC’s data about who has service across Texas, to more accurately map where broadband is or isn’t.
Conte encouraged Texans without access to check the FCC’s broadband map and engage with their communities to seek funding opportunities.
“Don’t just sit on your hands and wait for the state to help you,” he said.
The Harris County Commissioners Court approved a resolution to establish the Office of Broadband in December 2020. The office is responsible for connecting county residents to services and programs that can subsidize monthly internet bills and provide more equitable access to broadband services.
“One thing I’ll say, Operation Connectivity really helped to heighten the importance of connecting students to the internet and to access wireless devices when they don’t have a wired home connection,” said John Speirs, who manages the county broadband office. “Just bringing awareness to those issues — I applaud that.”
Rowe agrees and hopes that Texans will expand on that momentum.
“My rallying cry to every Texas community (is that) these programs are designed for you,” she said. “But you can only get them if you step up and take advantage.”
With no broadband internet at home, Tatiana’s family depends on cellphones with a signal strength that registers slightly above the outdated federal broadband standard of 25/3 Mbps.
Back in her kitchen, the family’s husky and pitbull mix, Rocky, scurried across the floor to the family room, followed by a slew of siblings chasing after the puppy. Tatiana looked up from her science homework and laughed.
“I learn much more at school than home,” she said.
In the family’s living room, the partner of Tatiana’s mother, Max Hernandez, pointed to an internet modem provided by the middle school resting on a table in the corner. The box could connect to Xfinity internet and support the 10 people living in the home, but they can’t afford the $83 monthly bill, he said.
For now, the family of seven will make do without.