Politics & Government

Colleges could go wireless with bill

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of California colleges serving large numbers of Hispanic students would get help going wireless under a bill approved Tuesday by the House.

Fresno State, Stanislaus State and Merced College, among others, could all get a piece of the $250 million-plus House package. Grants would pay for the equipment and training needed to bring wireless access to some schools, and expand it at others.

That fundamentally means fast laptop access to the Internet, which has rapidly evolved from coffeehouse luxury to campus necessity.

"It's something that folks now consider as a given," University of California at Merced spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas said. "It's when you don't have it that it becomes an issue."

UC Merced is already set up for universal wireless access, which Istas said is "one of the benefits of starting a new campus in the 21st century." Other, older colleges, though, are still trying to boost what they have.

California State University, Stanislaus, for instance, identifies its library's reference section and group study area as the places to go for wireless access. Wireless access is available in various locations throughout the California State University, Fresno, campus, but not in all of the dormitories.

"We have a plan to eventually have coverage everywhere, but there are challenges to doing it," said Richard Boes, Fresno State's director of information technology services.

Boes noted, for instance, that the school's student union is not configured for wireless. Because the student union wasn't built with state university funds, Boes explained, university funds can't be used for adding on the service. Federal funds, though, could help.

The legislation allows for individual cost-share grants totaling $2.5 million. The money could pay for what the legislation describes as "digital and wireless networking technologies," as well as necessary training.

"Many colleges, especially minority-serving institutions, do not have the resources to build these networks on their own," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

Similar bills were introduced in previous years, but they were never brought up for a vote while Republicans ran Congress. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders had set up the bill for routine passage. It passed with a vote of 331-59 and will now have to be reconciled with the Senate. It won the support of rank-and-file Republicans, as well, although Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, raised "some concern" about the price tag.

The bill provides $250 million for next year and an unspecified amount of money in future years. The grants target schools with large Hispanic, Native Hawaiian, Alaskan Native and Native American populations, as well as historically black colleges and universities.

"This is a lot of money for a very limited group of institutions," Hall cautioned.

The new grant program, moreover, marks only the latest congressional effort to assist what are formally known as Hispanic-serving institutions. Earlier this year, the House passed a separate bill that provides a 45% increase in funding for the Hispanic-serving institutions.

Certified by the federal Department of Education, these are schools where Hispanics account for at least 25% of total student enrollment. At least 61 colleges and universities in California fit the bill, and more are on the way.

At Fresno City College, for instance, nearly 40% of students are Hispanic, as are 35% at Merced College. Nine California State University campuses qualify.

So far, no University of California campus has been designated as a Hispanic-serving institution. But with the assistance of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, UC Merced officials are pushing ahead to win certification. They expect it will become final once the school is formally accredited.