The Digital Divide Blog

3 Reliable Solutions to Defeat the Digital Divide in your School district

School districts working to Defeat the Digital Divide for their students have a handful of reliable solutions to choose from. Determining the best fit for their needs depends on a variety of factors, from the number of students needing coverage to the size and scope of existing cellular networks. Because these solutions can work in tandem to provide students with reliable access, the right answer for many schools might involve a layered approach that includes a combination of a few different solutions together. For schools in particular, optimal and affordable solutions include:

1. Commercial cellular for in-home hot spots

One option schools can consider to Defeat the Digital Divide is utilizing commercial cellular providers and networks to create in-home hotspots for students. This solution can be further broken down into two approaches: establishing a direct relationship with a commercial cellular provider, or utilizing a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) and pools of data across multiple carriers.

Direct carrier relationships

In a direct carrier relationship, districts must order their data lines directly from those carriers such as Verizon AT&T, or T-Mobile. They must obtain pricing and maintain the relationship with the carrier. An advantage of this route is that some states offer a state contract for a preferred carrier that can result in substantial discounts. And the carriers will handle administrative details such as billing and troubleshooting.

Because the costs for these arrangements reoccur monthly, it’s possible for carrier rates to increase at any time, which can make budgeting tricky. In addition, the MiFi hotspot devices standard carriers typically provide for students (for free) are not secure, not CIPA compliant, and you can’t control firmware on them. To help combat this security threat, schools can opt to use Cradlepoint networking devices, which can be secured to be compliant.

Because the direct carrier solution is highly dependent on the commercial carrier buildout and where the network is available, it’s a good option for districts in urban areas and others where carriers are prolific and networks are advanced. It’s not a viable option for rural areas with limited network coverage.

Oftentimes carriers can’t service every household needing coverage in an area, so it’s common for schools to blend a system between multiple carriers. In these cases, we recommend schools select a preferred carrier as a primary resource for connectivity, and then augment it with other carriers as necessary depending on coverage capabilities.

MVNO solution

With a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) relationship, districts can purchase data from a variety of carriers and put everything on one bill to maintain one relationship encompassing all of the data plans and accompanying expenses.

This option allows schools to mix and match data plans. They also have the benefit of being able to turn lines off for a period of 90 days, which means they could shut lines off in the summer months when students don’t need the connectivity for school. That ability to turn off is not typically available with the direct relationships. A caveat of the MNVO option is the potential for overage expenses arising from the pools of data.

While these solutions can both be viable for all types and sizes of districts, cellular carriers have been known to be difficult to work with, especially for smaller districts. And for schools located in rural areas, these companies simply might not have any network coverage in the area, making a carrier relationship impossible.

2. Private LTE networks

A second reliable solution is the construction of a private LTE network to extend the school’s network to students. This option works under the same premise of a direct cellular relationship, but it’s an autonomous solution that uses radio waves as opposed to wiring into people’s homes.

Owning and operating their own cellular network gives schools more control over their connections, which allows for very good speed and security. Schools can exert more control over their content because private LTE involves licensing components and other features that create more of a top-down security approach than cellular carrier networks with MiFi devices.  And the cost is very effective when compared to a reoccurring monthly expense from a carrier. 

Though the thought of financing a private LTE network may seem daunting at first, the reality is that these solutions are very cost-effective, and there are funds and grants available to pay for them. For example, one private LTE tower covering 500 users can be implemented for about $22 a month per line (based on a three-year term), compared to most commercial carriers, which typically cost about $35 a month per line. Both solutions also require the school to buy the in-home device. 

While there’s an assumed load that goes with these private networks, it’s lower than one might think. With a data plan, the carriers typically handle tasks like billing and troubleshooting. With a private network, those duties transfer onto the school district. But in most cases, a school’s existing IT team is able to seamlessly fold the management of the private network into their existing duties.  

Because the cost of private LTE varies based on the coverage needs, this solution may or may not be more cost effective for certain districts. And depending on where students are located, especially in rural areas, there may be pockets of students private networks simply cannot reach. In this case, schools may still need to employ commercially available plans or another option to cover those students.

3. School bus hotspots

Cradlepoint routers offer a mobile solution that can be placed on vehicles to provide Wi Fi internet access. The only difference between this solution and other commercial cellular solutions is that it’s mobile, so it can provide coverage in different areas as needed, or allow students to come to the bus for connectivity.

To implement this solution, schools must have a clear understanding of routes and coverage. We usually recommend multiple modems for this option, so the bus can move through different coverage areas for different carriers without losing connectivity. This choice can also incorporate a school’s own private LTE system. If a bus is in town and you have private LTE, the bus could operate on the school’s network, and when they move out of range, they could have Verizon, AT&T, or T Mobile pick up the connection. 

School bus hot spots may not be ideal for districts in rural areas without good network coverage, because it can be difficult to secure a connection in those areas. Engaging with as many carriers as possible can help increase the odds of connectivity in these situations.

Getting started

It’s important to keep in mind that the right answer for many schools might involve a few of these different solutions layered together for optimal coverage.

No matter which solution a district decides to pursue, implementation starts with clearly defining their current state as well as their goals and needs. It’s critical to understand how many kids you’re going to be covering, what the expense is, if there’s grant money available to finance a solution, and if so, how much? The Digital Divide Readiness Assessment can help school officials identify key points to consider when making this decision.

A technology partner can help them talk through the problem, explore solutions based on needs and available options, and start advising on a solution to bring reliable connectivity to all students to Defeat the Digital Divide.

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