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The New Dawn of Connectivity

Pupil transportation utilizes many services and devices that hinge on wireless connectivity. For instance, buses may have tablets used for GPS, routing, monitoring, driver checklists, and other features. Wireless connectivity may connect to remote platforms that allow fleet managers to track driver behavior, bus maintenance factors, fuel consumption, speed, and more. Wireless communication also drives bus arrivals in real time, alerting parents via smartphone apps when the bus is about to turn the corner and arrive at their bus stop for pick up and drop off.

What’s more, during a worldwide pandemic, some districts used its school buses as Wi-Fi hotspots to provide internet access for virtual learning. In addition, Wi-Fi onboard the bus brings it one step closer to a rolling classroom or an extension of the school, allowing students to use their transit time to do homework or watch videos required of their instructional curriculum. It also helps ease the transfer of data to and from school buses.

But the 3G cellular networks some of this equipment uses will soon become obsolete. AT&T plans to sunset 3G by February of 2022. Others, like Verizon and T-Mobile, will follow in-suit. Many communications now already operate on 4G and eventually 5G will arrive as a robust means of wireless connectivity that will enable lickety-split fast service and a more voluminous pipeline for high-density data.

What effect will these wireless connectivity changes have on schools and school transportation managers?

Forging a New Wi-Fi Hotspot

Many schools do not have Wi-Fi communications on buses, though some do and have been using 4G. For others, these latest changes in available wireless plans pose a new opportunity to implement wireless technology and its many functions for the classroom and the bus.

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Related: FCC Emergency Connectivity Fund Applications Open Soon

“My current GPS is 3G,” said Teri Brady, director of student transportation for Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon. “We’re running a pilot right now on a couple of different companies to determine if we need to move away from our current vendor or stick with them and just pay for the upgrade of their equipment. I’m not real keen on sticking with the current company, but if we’re going to get the same quality and same customer service from the other vendors, then we might as well stick with what we have.”

Brady added that her district is looking closely at the new capabilities that wireless may provide, now and into the future. “Wi-Fi is really coming into it in the last month or two,” she said. “We’ve been looking at what’s out there. We want more than just a vehicle location. We want monitoring of the vehicle, battery health, engine health. We’re looking at student tracking, especially now as we have been going through papers and papers of contact tracing. If we were to have a system that automatically does that tracing, it would save a lot of labor time on our side.”

Wi-Fi Access Essential to Connectivity

Many school leaders recognize the need for Wi-Fi on the school bus, especially if their area does not have wide access to broadband internet, where the digital divide still prevails.

“Even if we were able to have Wi-Fi on our buses, there are several areas in our district with little or no service,” explained Debbie Schomisch, transportation director of Farwell Area Schools in Michigan. “During this pandemic, our school reached out to the townships in our area to provide internet service to students in their areas. They offered to help with the cost that would be incurred by the townships to broadcast their signal into their parking lots. This allowed students with unreliable or no service to connect to download their schoolwork.”

Meanwhile, Katie Delano, the director of transportation services for Coalinga-Huron Unified School District in Coalinga, California, said her district does enable Wi-Fi access on the bus. Students can use their iPads or computers on the buses. However, the major obstacle is the intermittency of the available service, she explained. With new and better wireless services available, it may benefit the district, and Delano said they look forward to using it if they can support it.

“Technology is amazing and as a district we were one- to- one long before the pandemic,” added Delano. “Every student and teacher either had an iPad or MacBook, [with] working hot spots on buses. Our IT department has been good with the changes and upgrades, so we are looking forward to better service for our kids.”

Delano said the Wi-Fi benefit is appreciated but now the challenge is providing access. It may be that the wireless service providers will provide service to areas that had sparse service, or none at all, as broadband service in rural areas is part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“I hope the speed, dependency and efficiency of Wi-Fi in our rural neck of the woods will improve,” said Delano. “Our Wi-Fi is stressed a lot of the time, so hopefully service including being dropped, buffering and speed will be better all around.”

Waiting on 4G, or Better Yet 5G

Many schools as well as vendors of services and equipment used in wireless communications currently operate on 4G. In fact, many have been using 4G for several years now. For those who don’t use 4G now, more often times than not their equipment is already capable of being utilized for 4G.

The substantial change will be when 5G is available. Much of the same equipment is also ready for 5G use, which will provide addtional opportunities and capabilities. However, new service plans may be required for those to use 5G technology.

Abhishek Garg is the chief technology officer and co-founder of Zūm in Redwood City, California. Zūm is a mobile app that enables parents to schedule rides for their kids from fully vetted drivers. It also partners with school districts to support its transportation needs. To date, the company has partnered with 150 school districts across the country and transported more than 500,000 students.

“At Zūm, our end-to-end, cloud-based platform is core to our mission of modernizing student transportation and providing a service that’s purpose-built around the needs for kids and the expectations of their families,” said Garg. “Our tablets currently operate on 4G LTE and most in-vehicle devices of our partner operators will also operate on 4G LTE.”

However, Garg is excited about the prospect of 5G and its availability. A new generation of tools and features will soon be upon the industry, for those who can afford to implement it, he said.

Related: FCC Approves School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Under COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Fund
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Related: School Buses Continue New Mission of Delivering Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots

“5G will absolutely be a game-changer for the industry,” added Garg. “It brings an immense opportunity to transmit the data that’s currently sitting passively on in-vehicle devices (e.g., video recordings, on-board diagnostics) in real time and at a cheaper cost to servers. This real time data can then be used to build the next generation of monitoring tools and product features to improve the end-user experience.”

There’s still some time to wait before 5G is widely
available. But vendors and others who offer services to schools, as well as the schools, pupils, and staff, stand to benefit from the newfound capabilities that 5G offers.

“While overall, the field is still a few years away from deploying 5G capabilities across networks and in-vehicle devices, Zūm is keeping a keen eye on developments in this domain and is committed to be at the forefront of adopting the latest technology to provide a best-in-class experience for students, parents and districts alike,” said Garg.

A Game-Changer in the Works?

For those who have no Wi-Fi devices and services, the near term will provide a fantastic opportunity for school buses to be outfitted with the technology. Those whose wireless connectivity has been limited, may see broadband funding brought to their area. They may also find greater support from school boards and local budgets to include funding to provide devices and fund service plans. The impending advancement of technology, for those who will embrace it, can be a game changer.

For instance, Morgan Minster is the marketing manager at Wireless Links based in New Jersey. The company offers multiple connectivity services and telematics, including a robust student tracking capability that utilizes RFID tagged to student ID cards. It’s products and services are found in several school districts including Wayne Trace Local School District in Ohio. The district operates a fleet of 50 buses that transport about 500 children and use fleet management,
dash cams and student tracking. Wireless Links also serves Brown’s Charter and Tour Services Inc. in Georgia that provides various school districts with school bus services with its fleet of 45 buses that transport about 700 students.

“As technology advances, the entire school transportation operation is requiring more tracking and more connected devices to use,” said Minster. “For the school bus operation, this is a game-changer. The entire school bus transportation solution needs multiple connected devices such as the telematics hardware for fleet management, the dash cams for video footage of the driver as well as inside the school bus, the tablet for the school administrator to see where the fleets are every morning and afternoon and see the routes, the RFID readers for student monitoring of boarding and disembarking and dispatch so that drivers and fleet manager or operations manager can communicate easily.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the July 2021 issue of School Transportation News. 

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