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HomeSpecial ReportsClosing the Digital Divide – With School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots?

Closing the Digital Divide – With School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots?

School districts, technology providers move forward with implementation even as the FCC has grown silent on allowing school bus Wi-Fi to be an applicable use of E-rate funds

Students at Algona Community School District spend hours each month riding their school bus.

The district is rural, located in north central Iowa, with a population of about 5,500. The school district transports 1,700 of its own students each day in 29 school buses plus a few more for neighboring smaller school districts, all over a 549-square-mile area. School bus commutes range from 45 minutes to as much as an hour and 20 minutes.

Thanks to the installation of Wi-Fi routers, antennas and a service plan, each student has access to Wi-Fi on board the school bus with a district-issued Chromebook.

There’s no log on. They simply open their Chromebook and begin using the Wi-Fi, which filters content, to help students catch up on homework or simply browse the internet. The long commutes, twice per day, add up and now may equate to additional learning time that would have been otherwise wasted.

“Kids love it,” said Merrill Mueller, the transportation director at Algona Community School District and an Iowa Pupil Transportation Association board member. “They can do whatever they need. Whenever they get on, they don’t need to worry about anything. They just power up their Chromebook.”

Why Does This Matter?

While many in the U.S. and Canada have access to high-speed internet, a fact remains: 35 percent of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to the Pew Research Center.

The digital divide for students, which has prevailed for years in many geographic regions of the U.S, could be closed quicker by installing more Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses.

A Commonsense Change?

 

FCC Chairwoman Jessica  Rosenworcel calls her declaratory ruling to provide E-Rate funding of Wi-Fi hotspots on buses a “commonsense change” that stands as a game changer to the nature of student transportation.

 

“While we’ve made progress getting many more families connected through our various broadband funding programs, the Homework Gap is still a hard fact of life for millions of schoolchildren in urban and rural America,” she said in May. “Wiring our school buses is a practical step we can take that is consistent with the history of the E-rate program. This commonsense change could help kids who have no broadband at home. I look forward to having my colleagues join me in approving this step to support the online educational needs of our nation’s schoolchildren.”

 

FCC did not respond to several requests for comment from School Transportation News as to the status of Rosenworcel’s declaratory ruling.

In May, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed federal funding be allowed for Wi-Fi in school buses via the E-Rate program. The program is designed to provide telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries.

Her announcement, which has not picked up steam since her declaratory statement, would provide substantial benefits to students. Benefits would aid millions of students caught in the “homework gap,” a phrase that is used to describe the conundrum whereby students must complete homework assignments without internet access at home. Rosenworcel’s proposal would provide Wi-Fi or similar access point technologies on school buses as it serves an educational purpose and the provision of such service.

“It makes perfect sense to me because it is the most cost-effective way to provide digital equity to all students,” commented Lea Bogle, president of Premier Wireless, which installed the Wi-Fi on the Algona, Iowa buses. “For the same $30 to $40 per month for service, you can cover 50, 60, 70 kids, whatever is on that bus with the same dollar. It makes it a very wise investment. The hardware that districts are putting on the buses, it’s going to last five to 10 years in life cycle with the new 5G equipment that we’re installing today.”

Like Bogle’s Premier Wireless, many other vendors stand to benefit from such funding and support Rosenworcel’s proposal. One of those is Kajeet, which says it provides the most school bus hotspots nationwide. One of the company’s customers is Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where all 120 school buses and 15 multi-purpose vehicles in the fleet are equipped with the Kajeet SmartBus. Some students travel upwards of an hour and a half on the school bus one way.

Greenwood said that the FCC including school buses in the E-Rate program would provide a shot in the arm to his long-term plans to continue providing Wi-Fi hotspots on new vehicles as his department receives them into the fleet. However, a new school board starts next month, and one of the first items to be discussed is if the Wi-Fi program should continue.

“I’m definitely going to fight for it,” he told School Transportation News.

As it is, Greenwood said Laramie County will be utilizing the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund through December 2023 to continue implementation.

The newest school bus Wi-Fi advocate on the scene is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is rolling out a program to provide hotspots on school buses that serve rural communities. Last month, the company wrote to FCC Secretary Marlene H. Dortch that it “support[s] the Commission’s efforts to enable funding” for E-Rate and is “committed to ensuring access to high-speed, low-latency broadband service to benefit American students as quickly as possible, not only at home but on their way to and from school.”

SpaceX has developed a constellation of smaller satellites named Starlink, the largest satellite constellation ever, to provide commercial internet service. Should E-rate funding be applied to the installation and operation of Wi-Fi on buses, SpaceX and many other supporting commercial vendors stand to benefit, as will the schools and thousands of pupils and staff who would greatly benefit from the access of Wi-Fi onboard school buses.

The merits of funding and connectivity for Wi-Fi on the bus could pay huge dividends to students.

The Many Benefits of Wi-Fi on Buses

“On board Wi-Fi will help school bus fleets in many ways,” said Clint Bryer, director of sales for student transportation at traditional video surveillance company Safety Vision, which now offers Wi-Fi installations on school buses. “The most obvious is where it helps students, internet connectivity that their family may not have the ability to provide,” he continued. “This will allow students the ability to access online education and complete online work without their families having to worry about budgeting for internet connectivity. It will also provide more family time as students can complete homework prior to arriving home and have more time to spend with their loved ones. Another benefit for students would be on a bus trip that may take a football team to a game. This would allow student athletes time to study their opponents, watch game film, etc. while on the way to the game.”

Bogle added that Wi-Fi on the bus has the obvious benefit of providing access for students to use and help close the homework gap. But such technology also enhances overall safety.
“This is the year we’re talking about safety and security right after Uvalde,” she noted. “In spite of all the other school shootings, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen everybody come back and look at their practices more than they are right now and saying, ‘Am I doing everything I can?’”

Bogle said the industry is missing an opportunity to do all it can for student safety if it does not utilize internet access to view video footage from the bus in real time.

“Seeing the camera after the bus came back doesn’t help,” she continued. “If we get a student that tries to hijack a bus, which has happened, if we get a student that comes on board with a gun, which has happened, how do you let law enforcement know in real time, non-verbally, what the situation is?”


Related: Are Students Using School Bus Wi-Fi?
Related: Districts Realize Unintended Benefits of Installing Wi-Fi on the School Bus
Related: Virginia School District Looks to Install Wi-Fi on School Buses


Bogle offered an anecdote to describe how internet access on the bus also provides great help for a medical emergency.

“A very good friend of mine, her son had epilepsy and his regular bus driver knew he had epilepsy and knew what to do if he had a seizure,” she explained. “Well, he had a substitute driver the day he had a seizure. She did everything wrong because she didn’t know better and panicked. No one else could see what was happening to the student. Instead of holding him and leaving him to lay flat, she picked him up. It was the opposite of what protocol should have been for him. If he had cameras and there’s a medical emergency, the nurse could look in and provide a student or the bus driver with the ability of being able to say, do this, don’t do that, and provide better guidance.”

Another benefit of Wi-Fi hotspots is to address school cancelations due to poor weather. At this report, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was preparing for the first snowstorm of the year.

“What our plan going forward is … we’re going to roll [students] into virtual so they are not missing any educational time, and it’s not extending the school year,” Laramie County’s Greenwood commented. “Our school year goes into the first or second week of June, and a lot of families have vacation plans.”

Ryan Gray contributed to this report.

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