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Are Hotspots a Viable Solution to Keep Your Students Connected?

Hotspots have become a quick and popular option for addressing the home connectivity gap, but what about their impact as a long-term or universal solution?

As schools are working to find solutions to get their students learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them also need to find solutions for the over 9 million students in the country who lack home Internet access. 

School districts are utilizing a variety of solutions to get households online, including low-cost residential broadband, mobile Wi-Fi, and personal hotspots. Personal hotspots are a popular solution because they’re relatively inexpensive, easy to set up, and highly mobile.

What is a Hotspot?

Wi-Fi hotspots are designed to turn a cellular data connection, such as your cell carriers’ LTE or 4G network, into a strong Wi-Fi connection with the ability to connect to your laptop or tablet. A hotspot can connect devices to the Internet, but its reliance on the LTE network means that the quality of the Internet connection is highly variable. The advertised bandwidth speeds of a hotspot can range anywhere from 5 to 30 Mbps – the distance from a cell tower, the number of people using the network, and the geography are all factors that can impact the achievable download speeds.

Here are two types of hotspot solutions that can be rolled out in your school district to help students during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Solution 1:  Personal Hotspots (Preferred solution)

Personal hotspots have become a go-to way to quickly get Wi-Fi into the hands of students. Some districts are obtaining and distributing personal hotspots for their unconnected students, others are working with organizations that are facilitating the process.  While specific devices vary in range and reliability, here are a couple of the pros and cons of personal hotspots:

PROS:
  • Can connect up to 3-10 devices.
  • In some cases, can go up to bandwidth speeds of 30 Mbps, which should give students the ability to complete a variety of activities including streaming instructional videos, uploading work virtually and accessing most ed-tech applications
CONS:
  • If your school has not already purchased personal hotspots for your students, you could be in for a long battle to get a hold of them as demand far exceeds supply.

Most of the major network carriers are sold out of their models online, making it almost impossible for anyone to buy one on their own.

Solution 2: Smartphone Hotspots

Hotspots are generated by your smartphone are convenient solutions for people in areas that lack a good quality Wi-Fi connection but have access to a strong cellular connection. Here’s a pros and cons breakdown for a smartphone hotspot solution.

PROS:
  • Can connect up to 1-4 devices.
  • Many cell carriers are removing data caps on most plans.
CONS:
  • Usually slower than a personal hotspot and not as reliable.
  • Even though many cell carriers are removing data caps on most plans, your phone’s Wi-Fi connection on average can only reach download speeds of 5 Mbps.
  • Sufficient for downloading materials for offline work, pre-recorded video lectures, and for sending emails.

66% of students already have access to a smartphone, making the smartphone hotspot a temporary solution for those in a pinch. However, they’ll be more limited by their cell phone’s connection to the LTE network than a personal hotspot. Be aware that these connections would make it difficult to host synchronous learning activities with students such as uploading large assignments, but would be sufficient for downloading materials for offline work, pre-recorded video lectures, and sending emails.

Summary

Personal hotspots and smartphones can provide a temporary connectivity fix for students who live within coverage areas and can access a device and a plan. However, lack of supply, inconsistency in performance, and high recurring costs for data plans make them far from a connectivity panacea. The long term goal should be to find low-cost wireline options for as many students as possible.