Free Wi-Fi will soon be available at several locations across Santa Fe despite reservations about the project from some city councilors who ended up voting for it anyway.
After a nearly 11/2 hour discussion Wednesday, Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Santa Fe Public Schools for the city to install Wi-Fi hot spots at several school campuses. The free Wi-Fi on school grounds is primarily intended for students who have switched to online learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic but who have limited or no internet access.
Though not part of the agreement with the school district, the city also plans to install Wi-Fi hot spots at several city-owned buildings that will be available for the public to log into, too.
“In combination with city-owned sites, the selected school locations will allow for more areas of the city to have hotspots near at hand,” Sean Moody, the city’s telecommunications architect, wrote in a memo to the council.
Some city councilors, including Michael Garcia, JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Renee Villarreal, pushed for a “timeline” to remove the infrastructure, which is only intended to be temporary. Despite their jockeying, the full council ultimately approved the agreement as originally presented. “The pandemic is our timeline,” Rich Brown, the city’s economic development director, told the governing body. “We don’t know when that’s going to end.”
The project, which will cost an estimated $90,000, has raised suspicions that it will lead to the installation of 5G cellphone technology, which still doesn’t exist in Santa Fe. But city and school officials emphasized that the hot spots are unrelated to 5G.
“That’s still aspirational for Santa Fe,” Moody said in a telephone interview before Wednesday’s virtual council meeting. “None of the providers have it here. Certainly, it’s not part of our project whatsoever. Our project doesn’t use it, and it doesn’t make it.”
Councilor Signe Lindell said the council received numerous emails about the project from concerned residents, some of which left her “dumbfounded.”
“There was one thing that stood out in those emails that I’m compelled to say out loud, and that’s the number of people that said in emails that they didn’t believe there were people in this town that don’t have internet access,” she said. “I was shocked by that. It tells me that there’s some folks who have no idea how much some of our fellow citizens are struggling.”
Tom Ryan, the school district’s chief information and strategy officer, said the free Wi-Fi on school campuses is designed to help students “get to their educational resources” as well as access general information about what’s happening in the world.
“We have about 550 kids that said that they need internet access,” Ryan said. “We also have teachers, some of which their spouse has lost their job due to the closing of businesses, etcetera, that can’t afford or can no longer afford internet.”