How a drone will deliver internet access to rural students

Drone will be tethered to a district facility and the building's ethernet connection to spread signal to surrounding homes
By: | March 19, 2021
A student and District Administrator Scott Foster examine a drone that will bring internet access to students in the rural Wisconsin district.A student and District Administrator Scott Foster examine a drone that will bring internet access to students in the rural Wisconsin district.

When service providers can’t or won’t bring broadband internet to rural communities, schools and local entrepreneurs have stepped in to connect students.

The Northland Pines School District, in rural Wisconsin, will soon test whether a drone developed by a local firm can effectively deliver a signal to students whose homes don’t have access.

“We have a lots of trees and lots of water, and our kids are very spread out,” District Administrator Scott Foster says. “Getting kids internet—running fiber to every home—doesn’t make sense to a lot of companies from an economic standpoint.”

Northland Pines covers more than 470 square miles across five counties. And about 10% to 15% of its 1,300 students don’t have any access at all while many others rely on a hotspot or cell phone that doesn’t provide sufficient bandwidth for all school work.


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The drone, developed by Wisconsin Telelift LLC, will be tethered to a district facility and the building’s ethernet connection. As the drone hovers, it will spread the signal to surrounding homes.

Just how many homes is yet to be determined, but distributing the district’s signal means its filters will be in place to provide students with a safe and secure connection, Foster says.

“Coming through the district’s system ensures the signal is used for educational purposes,” he says, “It’s not going to give families an opportunity to have Netflix.”

The drone, which will take its first test flights later this month, will not be in the air 24-7.  “It’s not meant to be up in the sky all the time,” Foster says. “It will be up at night and on snow days to fill the void when we’re not at school.”

The project, which received a $100,000 grant from the state, could help the district and its partners determine the best spots to locate permanent cell towers.

It might also provide a test case for a business model to bring broadband to rural and underserved communities across the country, Foster says.

“This isn’t meant to be the golden egg that saves us but it’s is a piece of the puzzle,” he says. “We need to continue to lay fiber because, ultimately, that’s still the best way to give families an equal playing field for learning.”


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