HomeTechnologyDirectors Discuss Navigating Wi-Fi Purchases, E-Rate Funding at STN EXPO Indy

Directors Discuss Navigating Wi-Fi Purchases, E-Rate Funding at STN EXPO Indy

INDIANAPOLIS — Despite an ongoing fight by some Republican congressional members over the use of E-rate funding for school bus Wi-Fi, the program is set to deliver the first fiscal year worth of funds next month, and school districts are prepared to take receipt to reap the benefits for students.

As discussed during a June 3 panel discussion at STN EXPO East, Wi-Fi on school buses has been gaining steam, especially after Emergency Connectivity Funds made purchasing the equipment affordable during COVID-19. Congress decided not to renew the program, but school districts seemingly have a long-term opportunity with E-Rate, approved by the FCC last fall, to outfit their fleets with the equipment.

The 2024 filing window closed at the end of March and selected districts will receive discounts of up to 80 percent for the equipment and installation to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for home-to-school routes only.

Panelist Jim Ellis, director of transportation for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, noted that his operation serves an area of about 245 square miles using 600 buses. Henrico County is currently in the process of outfitting 50 buses with Wi-Fi hotspots. He said that while 90 percent of the district’s routes are 30 minutes or less, so internet service will be provided on specialty runs that transport students for upwards of an hour and a half.

Meanwhile, Farmington Municipal Public Schools in New Mexico serves over 808 square miles with 77 route buses. Transportation Supervisor William Huish said he has students traveling upwards of two hours on the school bus. He noted during the session that Farmington is a mostly rural district and Wi-Fi “was something that made sense.”

Huish shared he was first introduced to Wi-Fi-enabled school buses at an industry conference, and he realized the technology could truly make the school bus an extension of the classroom. Indeed, that was the intent of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel when she included school bus Wi-Fi in her “Learning Without Limits” initiative that was announced last June.

Farmington initially installed units on 15 school buses in 2019. Within two months, Huish said he saw the success of the hotspots. Now, all routes including those serving students with disabilities have hotspot equipment.

He noted that he sees on average 1,800 hours a week of student Wi-Fi usage on buses. Some sporting trips travel over 300 miles, and data shows athletics work online on the way to the game. He noted that now when kids get home, they can focus on chores (as many students live on farms), dinner and resting instead of hours of homework. Despite sports and activity trips being ineligible for E-Rate funding, Huish said the district IT department will cover the costs.

Before E-Rate, Huish said he spoke with his Title I director and showed data on how the students we’re using the service. Title I funds then picked up the full cost of the program. This year, Farmington applied for E-Rate and will be getting the funds starting July 1. Huish added that the district doesn’t want transportation to pay the remaining 20 percent and instead the IT department will also cover it.

“It’s a team effort,” he explained, noting that it’s important to get everyone involved.

Ellis said that when he first joined Henrico County in 2020, the administration wanted to put the equipment on the buses, noting that all students either have an iPad, Chromebook or laptop. He said the funding was going to have to come out of the transportation budget, and he was admittedly reluctant. However, with E-rate funding available, Ellis said he is happy to pay $20,000 compared to $100,000 for the 50 units. He noted that prior to getting the funds, Henrico County did a pilot program on its buses and saw 30 percent student usage without any advertising.

Huish added that Wi-Fi hotspots have decreased overall behavior issues on the buses, and the drivers are appreciative. He noted that it’s important to do everything one can to keep school bus drivers content in this era of extreme labor shortages.

Related: STN EXPO Reno Keynote to Highlight Federal E-Rate Funding for School Buses
Related: (STN Podcast E192) Extension of the Classroom: New Federal Funds for School Bus Wi-Fi
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Panel moderator Ryan Gray, STN’s editor-in-chief, noted that one of the biggest concerns from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington in opposing the inclusion of school bus Wi-Fi in E-Rate is the idea that students accessing the internet can lead to online bullying and/or inappropriate websites.

Huish said his district operates its hotspots through Kajeet, which offers a website filtering system in addition to the one used by the school district IT department. He said when reviewing the usage reports, less than 1 percent of the students try to access a prohibited website. But the filter blocks the attempt, and the students rarely try to access disallowed sites again.

Ellis noted that even on his work computer there are websites that he’s not allowed to access. Henrico County is using Premier Wireless for its hotspots and doesn’t have any concern of students gaining access to sites they’re not allowed to use, he added.

Huish said that all Farmington buses have cellular data plans from Verizon, however one bus has a dual-band that can seamlessly switch between Verizon and T-Mobile, depending on coverage. Ellis said Henrico County uses T-Mobile, and he noted the additional cellular data plan cost required because Wi-Fi is separate from GPS and from digital radios.

Huish added that Farmington purchased rather than leased the equipment rather than and his bus mechanics performed all installations. He noted that it took roughly two hours per unit, and it saved the district money that can be directed toward other needs.

Ellis noted that Henrico also purchased the hardware. He explained that all vehicle repair is performed by the school district, but a different part of the facility manages the EMS, police and fire vehicle electronics as needed.

“We’re working to see if they can fit [in] the bus electronics as well,” he said. “Currently, we have to work with the vendors to send someone they contract with to service faulty equipment.”

An IC Bus representative in the audience answered a question regarding the availability of Wi-Fi on electric school buses, which the manufacturer partners with Kajeet to offer customers as a factory option. He noted that the telematics system and the Wi-Fi equipment on the bus are unique and should result in no complications.

Additionally, the panel discussion noted that camera companies already utilize Wi-Fi on school buses to be able to better streamline video download. Some of these camera companies also now offer Wi-Fi capabilities for student learning.

In conclusion, when asked if the Wi-Fi is worth it on shorter routes, Huish noted that even if just one child logs in and does homework on the bus that they can’t do at home, “it’s worth every penny for that one child.”

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