Connectivity Essentials: Super Hotspots & Wi-Fi Buses
The nation has made incredible progress in connecting classrooms to high-speed broadband, but many students still lack robust Internet connectivity at home. The ubiquitous use of technology in instruction has created a digital divide that impacts low-income and rural students hardest. A lack of Internet access outside the classroom immediately puts these students at a significant academic disadvantage.
One option school districts can explore to connect these students is super hotspots. While sometimes placed inside or mounted to the outside of a building, school districts have become increasingly adept at turning their school buses into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, where students can connect to the Internet to access online lessons and complete assignments.
WHAT ARE SUPER HOTSPOTS?
Super hotspots are enterprise-grade built-in mobile routers that project Wi-Fi signals into the immediate surrounding area. They can be deployed in two ways:
- Movable: can be placed on a bus or other vehicle
- Fixed: inside a building or mounted outside
For the super hotspot to work, school districts will need to put together a package consisting of the hardware (the router box), an antenna, and cellular SIM card(s).
Once within range, individual devices can connect to the mobile routers via Wi-Fi. Most plans offer speeds from 15 – 50 Megabits per second (Mbps), which allows students to complete a wide range of 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)
WI-FI ENABLED SCHOOL BUSES
Many school districts began installing Wi-Fi on their school buses to enable students to do their homework during their daily commute or traveling to after school events.
With social distancing measures in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, school buses provide school districts with the opportunity to leverage existing school district assets while providing a safe online environment for students using filtered bus Wi-Fi. The added mobility means there are endless ways to implement this solution, with several districts employing innovative Wi-Fi Bus strategies:
Setting up Wi-Fi enabled buses in school parking lots. Students can sit near the bus and connect to the Internet using a code written on the windshield.
Parking Wi-Fi enabled buses in neighborhoods with the greatest need. Where school districts have successfully identified areas with the most disconnected students, they are scheduling bus routes to match.
Drive-up hotspots. Locating Wi-Fi enabled school buses at scheduled locations means that students can work safely from their cars. Many school districts also share maps to help students find fixed hotspot sites in their communities.
SUPER HOTSPOT OPTIONS
Cradlepoint is an industry leader in Mobile Network Services whose hardware we are highlighting to explore the specifications and capabilities of Super Hotspot technology.
- You choose the cell provider and data plan: supports all major mobile carriers (i.e., Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint).
- You buy the antenna: vendors and resellers (such as Kajeet) can help school districts put together a package that can also include cell SIM cards and data plans.
- The range is dependent on cell signal at the specific deployment location but can vary between 50-200 feet.
- Concurrent user numbers tend to range from 10-30, but this also depends on bandwidth usage. You can expect to see the lowest end of the range if multiple students are on a video call (e.g., Zoom) and the highest end of the range when students are primarily browsing and uploading/downloading without streaming.
- Gigabit-Class LTE Advanced Pro modem available
- Expandable by adding additional modems
- Mobile SD-WAN for better coverage & connectivity
- Wave 2 dual-band, dual concurrent Gigabit Wi-Fi for multiple device connectivity
- Ruggedized for vehicles in challenging environments
- Unified edge security including multi-zone firewalls, IDS/IPS & Internet security
- Certified on multiple public safety networks
- Some models enable Dual-SIM with Auto-Carrier Switching
It’s important to do the research before making a commitment to purchase! As an alternative to Cradlepoint, Sierra Wireless offers a similar range of products and solutions.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR EVALUATING SOLUTIONS
1 | Consider your locale
Service is only reliable within a limited range from the bus, so ideal settings have a good cell signal in open space. For rural and remote districts with populations spread out over large distances, using super hotspots as a fixed solution will have a smaller impact. However, these districts may find that Wi-Fi buses can make good use of long commutes once schools re-open.
2 | Use the data you have
While you may have an intuitive sense of where to place Wi-Fi enabled buses, it’s always easier to identify potential locations by creating a Google map with student address data.
3 | Hire a bus driver or chaperone
Once installed, super hotspots are relatively simple to upkeep and maintain – but having someone on hand to troubleshoot is a best practice.
4 | Technical specs don’t always match up with a real-life deployment
As with most technology products, remember that a hardware vendor’s specifications on paper may not match the reality of your district’s deployment – it’s always best to do your research: ask the vendor what can be expected from best to a worst-case scenario. Also, consider asking for direct referrals to hear insights from real customers.
5 | Complete site surveys and testing beforehand
Locations must have a good cell signal for this solution to work, so avoid frustration by doing rigorous site surveys before communicating hotspot availability publicly.
6 | Super hotspots are not currently eligible for E-rate funding
There have been legislative efforts to change this, and EducationSuperHighway is monitoring changes to the program. You can find an up to date list of E-rate eligible services here.
PROS & CONS OF SUPER HOTSPOTS
- Super hotspots are transportable and can be moved from one location to another as needed.
- Once set up properly, a school district Super Hotspot can provide necessary content filtering to enable safe use.
- Wi-Fi buses make use of existing school assets and can keep district bus-drivers employed.
- Super hotspots on school buses allow students to access the Internet during long commutes, often improving school bus discipline.
- If school districts are unable to determine which students have a need, super hotspots can be deployed in a centralized location in under-resourced areas where it's available for students to come to use.
- Super Hotspots are highly dependent on a cell signal, and some carriers may be more reliable than others.
- Performance varies significantly depending on the number of connected students.
- Creating a reliable connection can be challenging in some environments, e.g., apartment blocks and dense areas of housing.
- Geographically spread out and highly rural school districts will have difficulty finding a central location with high impact
- Some students may lack transport needed to get to super hotspot locations
- During times when social distancing is required, may encourage student gatherings
SCHOOL DISTRICT SPOTLIGHT
Charleston County School District, SC: Wi-Fi Buses
A large and diverse district, the students at Charleston County Schools, cover a wide geographic area spanning from urban to rural locales. Though the school district had 1:1 devices before the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t until learning transitioned to taking place exclusively inside student homes that the administration adopted a take-home model. By recognizing the importance of pairing these devices with Internet access, the district quickly shifted their existing Wi-Fi bus deployment to adapt to a new set of needs.
How did Wi-Fi bus deployment begin?
When one of Charleston’s rural schools was being closed, administrators had to consolidate and bus those students to another area, which prompted the program as a means to make efficient use of a lengthier commute.
When the pandemic closed schools, the district realized that using existing assets and employees – school buses and bus drivers – could act as a tremendous benefit to bridge the gap for students without reliable Internet access at home.
For the hardware, the school district partnered with Kajeet, equipping buses with super hotspots at the cost of around $20 per bus each month. Kajeet made it easy to manage with data usage management tools including website-level monitoring, time of day access, and built-in filtering, so they're CIPA Compliant.
The district prioritizes locations by looking at each school, and their surrounding neighborhoods based on the number of students enrolled who receive free and reduced-price lunch (often used as a proxy for low-income). To maximize their impact, they made effective use of scheduling by splitting the buses up between morning and afternoon shifts to increase community access during the day. Though they started with school locations primarily, they've also moved into community centers and parks. The district began with ten buses and will be bringing on three more.
The district has asked bus drivers to monitor student usage, making adjustments on where to deploy buses based on a process of trial and error. They found that as long as students can be within 100-150 feet of the bus, the signal works well. Every bus is clearly marked with a sign, and students ask the driver for the password to avoid having the whole community take advantage.
Klamath County School District, OR: Fixed Super Hotspots
The Klamath County School District has installed 16 fixed super hotspots for students who lack access to the Internet at home to use during the school closures.
“We’re mainly focused on our outlying schools where students needed someplace close by to get a hot spot in case they didn’t have internet access, and then we also did most of our in-town schools as well,” said Glen Syzmoniak, Superintendent for Klamath County School District.
The super hotspots are located on different school buildings throughout the district and can be used in the parking lot without a password. Syzmoniak said the super hotspots would stay put, even after the school closures are over, but they would then be password-protected, and no longer be open to the public.
Read more examples of the ways America’s school districts are implementing solutions to tackle the homework gap.
Ready to get started? Follow our how-to guide with seven steps school district administrators can take to connect students during COVID-19.