How to get students online without MiFi hotspots

Educators should steer families toward low-cost broadband plans that may provide faster service
By: | April 3, 2020
Students are getting online to the internet thanks to WiFi-enabled buses parked in high-needs locations by the South Bend Community Schools in Indiana.Students are getting online to the internet thanks to WiFi-enabled buses parked in high-needs locations by the South Bend Community Schools in Indiana.

Mobile WiFi hotspots, also known as MiFis, are in short supply as equity-minded superintendents work to ensure all students have access to the internet to participate fully in online learning.

School districts have been handing out all of the personal hotspots they already own and trying to buy more of the MiFis to distribute to families whose homes aren’t connected.

However, internet service providers have about 500,000 of the devices available while 9 million to 12 million students still need to get connected, says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit working to provide high-speed internet to all schools.

The supply chains that manufacture these devices in China, Taiwan and South Korea have largely shut down, Marwell says.

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“There was a shortage of WiFi hotspots even before this crisis hit,” Marwell says. “Hotspots are an important part of the solution but they’re not going to be the solution, certainly not in the next few months.”

The No. 1 alternative is for educators to help families find low-cost broadband plans now being offered by cable and telephone companies, Marwell says.

For example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program provides a broadband connection for $10/month, with the first two months free. Customers who have previously been disconnecting for falling behind on bills are being offered amnesty so they can connect, Marwell says.

Unlike with MiFi hotspots—which generally come with data caps and slower speeds—Comcast is not suffering a shortage of access points and home routers, Marwell adds.

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With a MiFi hotspot, for instance, a user might not be able to join a Zoom call or access Kahn Academy. “These plans are actually a better answer,” Marwell says. “You get faster speeds and no data caps to access the full range of learning opportunities schools are making available”

Another way to reach the internet

The nonprofit 1Million Project has provided free Sprint mobile MiFi hotspots to 350,000 high school students over the last few years to help close “the homework gap” and the inequities in students’ abilities to learn online.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the data for those mobile hotspots has been increased from 10GB to 20 GB, and the organization has expanded its support to middle and elementary schools.  Interested administrators can register on the organization’s website

“This problem of the homework gap isn’t any more important today than a month ago, before COVID-19,” President Doug Michelman says. “What’s changed is the urgency. All of a sudden, a lot more people are pay attention and focused on addressing it”

Administrators also should be contacting senators and members of Congress to encourage them to place funding for student internet access in the next coronavirus stimulus bill, Marwell suggested.

Online, and on the road with WiFi

The fleet of WiFi-enabled school buses rolled out by the South Bend Community Schools in Indiana has allowed the district to keep its students connected while its buildings are closed.

Educators worked with city officials to map gaps in city WiFi services and neighborhoods with high concentrations of students on free- and reduced lunch, Superintendent C. Todd Cummings says.

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Throughout this school year, the buses parked in strategic locations to allow students in cars or on foot to work online or download homework assignments, Cummings said.

“Little did we know we’d be in the position to provide WiFi and feed students in a long-term way,” Cummings says.

The buses are now parking for eight hours a day in alternate locations—the same 22 spots on Monday and Wednesday, and another 22 on Tuesday and Thursday.

Students can drive by in cars, and upload their work and download the next assignments. Others are close enough to connect from surrounding homes.

“It’s been a really nice community engagement mechanism to watch,” Cummings says.

And yes, the bus drives have been provided with Chromebooks—both so they can monitor the WiFi service and keep themselves occupied.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer. 

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