For students, having reliable internet connectivity is essential to ensure that they can access educational online content, both at school and when they’re at home. However, the pandemic highlighted the breadth of the digital divide and that many school districts across the States suffered from a severe lack of internet access. Students without internet were forced to go to a local Starbucks or McDonald’s to access the public Wi-Fi, just so they can complete their homework.
An April 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 14% of parents said their children had to use public Wi-Fi to finish schoolwork because there was no reliable connection at home. This is not a sustainable model.
So, what are the options available to school districts that desperately require internet connectivity?
Waiting for Wi-Fi
Some school districts will be under the assumption that they have no choice but to wait for broadband providers in their area to connect the area with fiber broadband. This puts them at the mercy of service providers’ timescales. Service providers have to get permission from the local municipal organizations or utility company to lay fiber into the ground, which often takes a long time, and that’s even before the installation happens.
Service providers must also have to ensure that they can generate a return on investment from their deployments, which can be challenging in more rural areas, and often results in indecision or deployment of a lower cost lower performing network. Moreover, coverage and performance from Wi-Fi is often inconsistent and does not provide widespread coverage, both indoors and outdoors, and in a way that is easy to manage at scale.
Increasingly, more school districts are now realizing that they will have to take matters into their own hands. However, for the reasons above, installing a private fixed broadband network that delivers ubiquitous coverage, is an expensive and complex task. What many school districts don’t realize is that the advent of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum has made it possible to develop private cellular networks, that can overcome many of the challenges presented by fixed broadband.
CBRS brings widespread availability to private cellular networks
CBRS is a 150 MHz wide broadcast band, within the 3.5 GHz spectrum band, available to organizations of all types across the United States for private cellular (LTE) network applications. It can be used to deliver standardized cellular connectivity — LTE and 5G — across a specific neighborhood, town, or geographic area. It means that cellular coverage is now available without having to rely on solutions from local mobile carriers to leverage their licensed spectrum. This new cellular band and licensing model is helping to accelerate the deployment of private deployments for a wide variety of organizations, such as school districts. The number of successful deployments for this vertical continues to grow.
Private cellular networks bypass the need for fiber to the home. They can be extended into under-connected areas via fixed wireless, which uses radios to transmit internet access to/from the home or business, as opposed to fiber in the ground. This process is much more cost-effective, less disruptive and risk-averse. Private cellular networks can also connect directly to existing fiber infrastructure.
Private cellular networks can outperform Wi-Fi for in-building and outdoor coverage, offer enhanced security, and become a platform for a long list of use cases that not only serve the school but serve the broader community. And they are designed to be as easy to install, due to the “plug-and-play” CPE equipment and management software. And thanks to low-cost hardware and the availability of CBRS spectrum, these solutions are now economical and viable for schools and communities across the US.
Several school districts across the US are now turning to private cellular networks to deliver widespread coverage to schools and student homes. In January 2021, Murray School District in Utah was the first district to build a private CBRS network, connected via fixed wireless. It provides internet access to 6000 students and 25 schools in the area. The City of Las Vegas has also deployed a private cellular network, using CBRS spectrum, to help close the digital divide, connecting schools, homes and businesses in the area. Before the installation, upwards of 30,000 children did not have internet access and were struggling to remain connected to their schools and keep up with their classmates.
This is just the beginning, and several other private network deployments are happening across school districts today. Furthermore, Joe Biden approved the Infrastructure Bill in June last year, with $65 billion set aside for broadband deployments, such as private cellular networks. What is now required is increased awareness across government, districts and the broader IT industry, about the benefits of private cellular networks for generating affordable and widespread connectivity. This will help to accelerate the deployment of cellular networks and close the digital divide.