3 ways to speed internet access with COVID stimulus

Distributing devices and mobile hotspots, one of the simplest ways to expand connectivity, remains an imperfect solution
By: | March 31, 2021
Online learning is here to stay, which means school districts will likely use stimulus funds to shore up home internet access for students in their districtsOnline learning is here to stay, which means school districts will likely use stimulus funds to shore up home internet access for students in their districts

Superintendents, CIOs and other district leaders planning to spend stimulus funds on high-speed and reliable internet access for students can consider three options.

Distributing devices and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots—which many districts rushed to do at the outset of the pandemic—continues to be one of the simplest ways to use stimulus funds to expand connectivity and narrow the digital divide.

However, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, or Mi-Fis, remain an imperfect and shorter-term solution, says Brian Louderback, a regional sales director who covers education for Insight Enterprises, a technology services company.

“If you have one Zoom session, it might work efficiently depending on the content being shared,” Louderback says. “If you have multiple students per household trying to use a Mi-Fi card you could experience lags and stagnant feeds and you lose the effectiveness of the curriculum that’s coming through.”

Another option, which many districts have also pursued over the last year, is to create Wi-Fi hotspots in school parking lots, local parks and other public locations.

Districts hoping to maximize this strategy must do some work ahead of time to determine where the greatest need for connectivity is in their communities, Louderback says.

This process is also more effective when districts already have a sturdy fiber-optic network in place.

The most complex—but likely longest-term—solution is called CBRS, or Citizens Broadband Radio Service. Here, schools are essentially building their own broadband networks with the help of internet service providers, local governments and other partners.

CBRS provides a stronger, wider signal, and is already being used for services such as telehealth and “smart city” technology that’s power by the internet of things, Louderback says.

Districts would need help from municipalities, for instance, in placing network equipment on fire and police stations, and other public buildings. Internet service providers and other utilities could provide access to telephone poles, Louderback says.

District leaders should also keep track of how states, counties and cities are using stimulus funds to build out broadband networks. Some local officials are interested in creating “smart cities,” in which a powerful broadband network connect a web of sensors that can monitor everything from traffic to water usage, Louderback says.

“I think the COVID-era will be a huge pivot,” he says. “There’s extra funding coming to help schools solve short-term problems that can also truly transform our education system.”

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