School district repurposes buses as Wi-Fi hotspots

School district repurposes buses as Wi-Fi hotspots
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Eight school buses have been turned into mobile hotspots. They are driven to the poorest neighborhoods and parked overnight to provide internet access.

A poverty-stricken school district in Southern California has come up with a novel way to alleviate the lack of internet access for kids in its catchment area. It’s repurposing school buses as internet hotspots.

The school buses are parked overnight in impoverished areas where hard-wired broadband Internet access isn’t usually available and students aren’t able to access the internet. Most of the school district’s students reside in stone-broke rural areas and/or reservations.

All of the children in the vast, 1,220-square-mile school district qualify for reduced-priced or free meals, says the Office of Educational Technology (OET). And almost half of the students are English-language learners.

Eight school buses have so far been built-out as mobile hotspots and are driven to the poorest of the Coachella Valley Unified School District’s (CVUSD) neighborhoods. One of the areas is a trailer park, explained the Hechinger Report writing about the initial experiment in 2014. The vehicles are left overnight so the kids can get online. The district provides iPads for the students.

CVUSD’s latest buses are “accessible to student users who are located within about a 100-yard radius of the vehicle,” explained The Journal, a school administrator trade publication.

The desert-located school district, while close to affluent Palm Springs, California, is the second-poorest school district in the country, according to PBS Newshour, which produced a recent piece about the initiative that’s gearing up to wire more buses.

Overcoming challenges

With the first buses, “the batteries lasted only about an hour and left the bus unable to start the next morning,” CVUSD Superintendent Darryl Adams told The Journal about the early work. Now, power is provided into the evening for the bus-installed Cradlepoint routers by roof-mounted solar panels.

Other outstanding issues—and indeed one of the reasons the scheme was set up in the first place—include ISPs.

“We found that we had a problem with some of the third-party provider internet companies not willing to go into some of the areas that we serve,” Adams told PBS.

Adams says the lack of support from ISPs doesn't matter.

“In the long run, we will actually become our own Time Warner, our own Cox Communication, and provide this for our students,” he told PBS.

Verizon provides the buses’ Wi-Fi internet service.

Other issues the district ran into relate to the fact that trailer parks tend to be private land, and owners need to give permission for the buses.

"Work with private landowners to determine where you can park your school buses at night," the OET tells school districts that are thinking of setting up similar schemes.

The school district has 100 buses, Adams says. All are expected to be converted to hotspots.

The CVUSD project will eventually come in at around $290,000 for the 100 buses, predicts the OET, which is part of the Office of the Secretary of Education.

Census data shows there are 5 million households nationally with school-age children who are not connected to the internet, according to PBS.

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