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Some Covington Families to Receive Free Computers, New Internet Access

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted so much of everyone's everyday lives, but it was particularly burdensome for families when schools were shuttered and learning transitioned to remote, online activities.

For inner city families in Covington, particularly those of lower incomes, the burden was even deeper.

41 percent of Covington Independent Public Schools students lacked consistent internet connections each day, Superintendent Alvin Garrison said. "Teachers reported they could connect with students one day but not the next," he said.

The district was exploring what to do about what many refer to as digital inequality or an achievement gap, but that Garrison refers to as "an opportunity gap." 

The Covington board of education was exploring the option of transforming school buses into internet hot spots and parking them in select neighborhoods so that kids could access their online instructions.

But now, thanks to a $2.5 million investment announced on Wednesday, internet access and the devices need to use it.

Covington Connect was announced in a hot, socially-distanced news conference at Hotel Covington, and is designed to expand wireless infrastructure to create more connectivity in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, and to provide free computers to up to 1,900 families of school-age children.

"Too many families have been blocked from the opportunity that you and I take for granted," Mayor Joe Meyer said. "It is a problem begging for correction."

Meyer welcomed the partners in the initiative: the City of Covington, Covington board of education, Housing Authority of Covington, Cincinnati Bell, Blair Technology, and Houston-based Comp-U-Dopt, which provides access to technology for under-served youth.

"In a world where internet access is increasingly necessary to do everything from applying for a job to accessing health care to paying your rent to attending college to cashing your paycheck, too many families are effectively blocked from opportunities that many of us take for granted," Meyer said. "Digital access isn't a vague, symbolic concept - it's an every-day need."

The city committed $1 to 1.25 million from its share of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the infrastructure and for five years of service costs. Cincinnati Bell is donating fiber infrastructure at a cost of $700,000. The Housing Authority committed more than $400,000 of its CARES Act funds for upfront infrastructure costs and monthly service fees over the next three to five years. Covington Independent Public Schools pledged $250,000.

The first part will expand internet access by creating about 125 Wi-Fi neighborhood access points with devices that allow connectivity in a finite area surrounding that equipment. Targeted communities include Latonia and areas to the north, but priority neighborhoods include those with high concentrations of Covington students: Eastside, Helentown, Austinburg, Peaselburg, Levassor Park, Lewisburg, and West Covington.

Cincinnati Bell will also run new fiber to neighborhoods that largely lack fiber services, with most of the work being done in Eastside and Peaselburg.

Simultaneously, the Housing Authority of Covington (HAC) is contracting with Cincinnati Bell to connect apartments in its biggest complexes -- Latonia Terrace and City Heights - to high-speed Wi-Fi.

"This means that the majority of residents living in those communities will be able to access the internet, 24/7, for school, work, or resources -- any time, day or night -- from the comfort of their own homes," Housing Authority Deputy Director Chris Bradburn said.

"Many of our students have personal devices (like cell phones) but face disadvantages as a large number of our families do not have internet access in their homes," Garrison said. "That makes it quite challenging to access and complete online assignments. However, this project and partnership with the City will create a more even digital playing field for our students. I am very excited about the possibilities. This could be a real game changer for our Covington families.''

Currently, public Wi-Fi is available only in the downtown Renaissance District through Cincinnati Bell's partnership with the City and Renaissance Covington.

"The current challenges we face as a community clearly demonstrate that internet connectivity is mission-critical to access jobs, educational opportunities, and health-care resources," said Leigh Fox, president and CEO of Cincinnati Bell. "We appreciate the City of Covington's leadership in addressing digital inequity, and we are proud to be part of the Covington Connect initiative."

Meyer said the city hoped to have the entire Covington Connect project finished by Christmas, although some areas will be finished months earlier. Some of the locations picked for "hotspots" already have fiber, and some don't, he said.

He praised Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for his decision announced May 20 to allocate $300 million in CARES Act funding for local governments in Kentucky.

"Without him, the Covington Connect initiative would not be happening," Meyer said. "Covington is determined to emerge from this pandemic not shell-shocked and shattered but better positioned to help our families strengthen their futures."

But internet access is only part of the reason for the "digital divide." Another challenge is lack of computers.

To address that problem, two Latonia-based computer firms that share leadership - Blair Technology Group and ReGadget - are partnering with Comp-U-Dopt to distribute free desktop computers, Chromebooks, and other devices to up to 1,900 families of Covington schoolchildren.

The companies have previously partnered on similar projects in large cities like Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans and Washington D.C., said Kurt Reynolds, co-owner of ReGadget and CFO of Blair Tech.

The local companies recondition gently used desktops, laptops and Chromebooks, among other things, with Blair Tech being the nation's No. 1 authorized refurbisher of Microsoft products.

Comp-U-Dopt will raise funds - it's estimated that $400,000 will be needed - and set up an on-line registration system for families. The computers will be distributed at one of the companies' locations in Latonia during a one-day event currently scheduled for September, Reynolds said.

"Having partnered on similar projects around the country, we asked Comp-U-Dopt to work with us to bring the same concept to our home city," Reynolds said. "We saw a need here and knew we could tap our expertise to make a huge imprint on our surrounding community. We're excited about the opportunities this partnership will create for families in Covington, especially with the expansion of Wi-Fi access."

Along with the computers, families receive two-year service agreements.

"It is incredibly exciting to embark on a partnership which actually could solve the digital divide in the community," said Comp-U-Dopt CEO Megan Steckly. "Partners who join our efforts to raise the $400,000 needed for this project will be part of making history and a meaningful impact on the lives of residents in need. Projects like this demonstrate how solvable this issue really is for the community."

-Written by Michael Monks with additional quotes provided by City of Covington

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