Connectivity Essentials: Hotspot Solutions
Hotspots are physical locations where people can access a Wi-Fi network to connect to the Internet. Mobile hotspots are designed to turn a cellular data connection into a Wi-Fi network.
There are three types of MOBILE hotspots
- Personal Hotspot: a dedicated portable device that converts a cellular signal into a Wi-Fi network (e.g. MiFi). Typically used for an individual or family.
- Smartphone Hotspot: a smartphone that can be converted into a personal hotspot ( also known as tethering).
- Super Hotspots: a more robust version of a personal hotspot with an expanded range that connects a greater number of devices and users.
In this part of our toolkit, we focus primarily on personal hotspots, as school districts can purchase and deploy these devices in bulk.
Personal hotspots typically deliver speeds between 5-30 Megabits per second (Mbps), which can vary greatly depending on the connection to your carrier. Students can complete activities such as:
- Basic web browsing
- Send and receive email
- Stream music and videos
- Download, complete, and upload online assignments.
- Participate in live video calls (note that quality will degrade with multiple concurrent users)
Read How Some Schools are Tackling the Homework Gap to find examples of how school districts are implementing other solutions.
RESEARCH HOTSPOT OPTIONS
Solutions for Individuals and Families
All major mobile carriers offer various options with different devices and data plans. To help you evaluate the various solutions for families that don’t have Internet access at home, download our hotspot comparison cheat sheet.
Solutions for K-12
Providers are working directly with school districts to connect students at home. The school district can coordinate purchases with specifications for their district (such as data limits per day, or content filtering) and deploy the hotspots as needed. A few companies working on solutions for schools include:
A provider explicitly focused on serving K-12 schools, Kajeet has several customizable broadband plans designed to make it easy for school district administrators to monitor, control, and deploy their hotspots.
PROS AND CONS OF PERSONAL HOTSPOT DEVICES
Hotspots don’t require installation. You can simply turn them on and connect your device to the network. They are small and can be distributed relatively quickly via mail or in-person. Since hotspots can be purchased by the district and immediately used, there is no delay or challenge for families signing up for service or waiting for installation.
Generally, hotspots can connect three to ten devices, so multiple family members can access the Internet. This is useful if there is more than one student per family who needs to access the Internet for schoolwork.
In some cases, hotspots are equipped to provide up to 30 Mbps. This level of speed is similar to many low-cost wireline solutions and allows students to stream classroom instructional videos, participate in video chats, upload or download assignments, and access most ed-tech applications.
As previously stated, several major network carriers sold out of hotspots during March and April, making it difficult to procure the number of devices needed to serve large numbers of students.
Personal hotspots, or any device that relies on data and the LTE network, might see speeds slow down or top out based on use. Additionally, it may be difficult to use hotspots in rural areas with spotty cell service coverage. If your school district covers a wide region with rural, suburban, and urban areas, consider testing in each location to see where cellular connections are strong enough to support hotspots.
Personal Hotspots can cost between $25-$300 for the device, while data plans range from $10-$50 per month. While this might be a necessary expense when low-cost wireline carriers do not have viable options, it tends to add up if there are many students in need of the plans and devices. Consider working with a provider on a managed solution to access bulk discounts to lower the cost.
Due to the lower bandwidths offered by most hotspots, using them to stream instructional videos or participate in live online discussions can be challenging. Teachers find themselves offering alternative lessons or modifying their curriculum to account for home-access needs - an added strain when they are often learning to use the technology as they go. As school districts adapt their distance learning programs for the future, it’s vital that students and teachers have reliable Internet access and are able to focus on learning rather than technology troubleshooting.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR EVALUATING SOLUTIONS
The demand for personal hotspots has spiked because of the coronavirus pandemic, creating some problems in the supply chain. During March and April, hotspots from major US carriers were sold out or back-ordered for weeks. Be sure to contact providers for the most up-to-date information if you are considering hotspots as a potential solution for your school district.
Consider whether a provider offers fully managed solutions or additional cloud-based management. This makes it easier to administer and manage lots of hotspots. Providers like Kajeet offer features such as:
This allows school district administrators to manage individuals or groups of students based on grade levels or subjects.
This is based on Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) guidelines, or school policies (e.g., filter out social media or gaming URLs).
Distributing data in a pool rather than to individual devices (e.g., 50 hotspots all share 300GB of data) to allow unused data from some students to be used by others.
A network guarantee to provide the student with the best hotspot connectivity out of the four major carriers no matter where they live.
While hotspots are relatively simple to set up, each provider has slightly different instructions. You can find many of the most popular setup manuals thanks to the Sprint 1 Million project here.
If your hotspots came from various carriers, they are not likely to have content filtering set up automatically and should be programmed with CIPA compliant filters. Read our blog on considerations for your acceptable use policy during COVID-19 to learn more.
SCHOOL DISTRICT SPOTLIGHT
Portable hotspot devices have become a simple go-to way to get Wi-Fi into students’ hands quickly. Some districts are obtaining and distributing hotspots for their unconnected students; others are working with organizations to manage the process.
Greeneville City Schools (GCS)
GCS approached the challenge from a community perspective. When the district Chief Information Officer, Beverly, found that managed providers could not send hotspots to her students for a month, she went to social media to ask for donations. There was a huge response: Her friends and neighbors donated 50 personal hotspots (which she picked up by driving door-to-door), and a local IT company donated an additional 25. Having first worked with her district’s families to get those who were eligible signed up for Comcast Internet Essentials, these 75 hotspots were enough for the remaining students. With those hotspots, Greeneville City Schools connected 100% of their students at home!
Beverly worked with Kajeet and Verizon to manage the deployment of the hotspots. Her IT team removed the SIM cards and reported the device identification numbers to Kajeet and Verizon, who then used their cloud management application to program CIPA filtering and ensure the devices were in line with GCS’s acceptable use policy.
When it came time to distribute them to all of their students, GCS already had social-distance protocols in place for their school meal pick ups/drop-offs. A member of their IT team, with PPE at the school at all times, stood ready to distribute and troubleshoot the device set up. For anyone unable to come to the school, the school bus drivers have organized drop-offs of food, devices, books, and other learning materials.
Hotspots are a viable short-term option to help get many students connected quickly. Be sure to evaluate solutions with your local context and circumstances in mind to ensure your students have what they need to take advantage of digital learning at home.
Ready to get started? Read our how-to guide with seven steps school district administrators can take to connect students during COVID-19.