A WI-FI tower is seen in La Balboa neighborhood near Roosevelt Elementary on Thursday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — If you saw Mayor Jim Darling cruising through South McAllen last week with a smile on his face, you weren’t imagining things.

The mayor was conducting an impromptu test of Wi-Fi the city began laying the physical infrastructure for last month, checking to see if his phone stayed connected as he drove through the La Paloma neighborhood.

The phone stayed online and Darling saw a satisfying victory after a five-year quest to beam city Wi-Fi around McAllen that’s been plagued by red tape, dead ends and all sorts of other impediments.

“I drove around and didn’t lose it, so I was really happy as heck about that,” he said Thursday.

Darling said in the city’s search for a feasible Wi-Fi option it chased presidential programs, considered beaming Wi-Fi from school buses and even thought about turning unused buildings into places students could go to get online. All of those options were too expensive, too labor-intensive or foiled by political changes.

“I’ve been pushing for it a long time, our city commission’s always been behind it, but we never had something we could take them we could say would work,” he said.

Darling said the technological improvements coupled with the city’s existing infrastructure eventually led to a breakthrough that was pursuable.

In essence, the city extended existing fiber optic lines to water towers, installed antennas on top of the water towers and put up hundreds of nodes on top of streetlights on city streets.

“It kind of all came together — technology, the different entities that needed to cooperate, the people a lot smarter than me that know how to do it,” Darling said.

Last week the city recorded 2,000 users, a number Darling expects to grow, especially with the skyrocketing need for Wi-Fi connectivity caused by pandemic-prompted online learning.

“Kid-wise, you take the number of kids in the school and it’s probably going to be pretty close to that number just in this area, and then we have a grammar school just down the road,” Darling said, speaking outside of Roosevelt Elementary School on Thursday.

Speaking with Darling on Thursday, McAllen ISD Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said the move was critical to educating local students.

Roosevelt Elementary Principal Albert Irlas during an announcement about the city and the school district providing Wi-Fi to the community Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“When you look at COVID-19 and the fact that we’re 100% remote, it’s 100% important because without kids being connected it’s impossible for us to provide the education that we need to,” he said. “As a one-to-one district where all of our elementary students have iPads and our secondary students have Chromebooks, this connectivity part of it is the last piece of the puzzle.”

According to a district spokesperson, 71% of McAllen ISD students are economically disadvantaged. Darling says the Wi-Fi will help those students and level the playing field.

“You want to see all the kids have equal access, and that’s what this is,” he said.

Even though the Wi-Fi is active, coverage can be spotty and it might not always reach into people’s homes. Darling says that’s a problem the city has anticipated and can address if needed.

According to Darling, it’s possible relatively inexpensive amplifiers could be installed in people’s homes and could be billed in installments along with their water bill. Or the number of nodes, of which there are already more than 400 in South McAllen, could be increased.

“They have a 600-foot radius, so you can space them 600 feet,” Darling said. “Most of our ordinances require a streetlight every 300 feet, so we said we can improve it if we need to.”

Darling says the city’s now focusing on replicating the program north of Pecan, using city employees to install the nodes with bucket trucks. The reception to seeing those nodes go up has been positive.

“They’ve been having a lot of people come up and say it’s great that they’re doing that,” the mayor said.

All those nodes and antennas solved a difficult problem, Darling said, and he hopes others can replicate the solution.

“Hopefully this can be a model for other cities,” he said. “Cities put out fiber optic for their facilities; under federal law, we can’t retail Wi-Fi at all. We can give it away, but we can’t retail it, so there’s no competition, really. It’s hard to find customers for your city.”