How city buses became free WiFi ‘super hotspots’ in Sacramento

School districts leaders helping to determine the locations where WiFi buses will provide daily service
By: | May 7, 2020
Ten WiFi 'super hotspot' buses have been deployed in Sacramento, California, to provide students with broadband internet access to connect to online learning.Ten WiFi 'super hotspot' buses have been deployed in Sacramento, California, to provide students with broadband internet access to connect to online learning.

Several California agencies have turned a fleet of city buses into free WiFi “super hotspots” in an experiment that will bring broadband internet service and online learning and telehealth to unconnected students in the Sacramento area.

Over the next two months, the 10 retrofitted WiFi buses will provide 3½ hours of wireless broadband service at two locations each day in areas deemed to be “digital deserts.”

The buses will park at schools, parks, libraries and other locations, with WiFi equipment that has a range of up to 1,800 feet. Research has found that, in certain areas of the city, broadband adoption rates are below 30%, and many homes have a single computer device or none at all.

Education leaders in the city are helping to choose the bus locations based on which schools have the highest need and where the most students will benefit from service, says Louis Stewart, the City of Sacramento’s chief innovation officer.

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“School district leaders are helping to identify the schools that would be the most impacted by a solution such as this,” Stewart says. “The baseline criteria given to them was fairly simple: We asked them for schools with the most at-need children. We asked them to approximate the number of students that could benefit from this solution.”

The WiFi Buses—a project of the city, the California State Transportation Agency and the Sacramento Regional Transit District—are outfitted with combinations of equipment provided free of charge by AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Cradlepoint, Sierra Wireless and Aruba.

Schools leaders and community organizations are now working to make students and families aware of the free service that allows students to upload work and download assignments while the buses are parked, Stewart says.

Students may also be able to use WiFi service that has been extended from school buildings and libraries, he says.

“If we can get turnout, it will at least provide a way for students to still connect to school,” Stewart says. “The service providers have made it super easy to connect. We will have to rely on the students having the support and transportation options to get to a site close to them.”

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If the project is successful, the project could be replicated by other cities and transit agencies in the state, organizers say.

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Several districts across the country have turned their own school buses in mobile WiFi hotspots and deployed them in high-needs areas of their communities.

The School District of Manatee County in Flordia plans to use it WiFi hotspot buses tp provide broadband internet access even after schools reopen. Leaders of the School District Of Manatee County in Florida purchased high-powered routers and converted 25 school buses into mobile broadband hotspots.

Leaders expect to double the WiFi bus fleet and continue using the service to provide internet access to unconnected students even when schools reopen, Chief Technology Officer Scott Hansen told University Business last month.

“We look at this implementation not just for COVID-19 but beyond that,” Hansen said. “It’s an opportunity to provide students with access during the course of a bus ride, whether it’s sports, clubs or field trips.”


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