As school districts across the country struggle to provide students safe learning environments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are looking for broadband solutions that can bridge the digital divide and support new remote and hybrid learning models. To meet those challenges, the city of Pittsburg has partnered with USD 250 and Motorola to provide area students with access to high-speed Internet service.
Last week, city commissioners and the Pittsburg Community School Board of Education approved measures to move forward with plans for a private LTE network. Funded by money from the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) taskforce, the network will provide cellular service to students without access and allow them to connect to the school’s protected network.
“This is a huge thing for our community,” Assistant superintendent Brad Hanson said. “Once this is up and running, this is going to be something we are very, very proud of.”
Hanson said the board and the city knew if they were going to be a one-to-one school district and value technology, this was one hurdle they had to get through.
“We’ve had previous conversations with the city about this maybe being a project that we would be interested in putting together because we know there is a need,” Hanson said. “We knew upfront that we had kids that didn’t have quality Internet service, and then when we surveyed last spring after COVID hit, we found that we had about 20% that indicated to us that they did not have good quality Internet service.”
The grant-funded program will serve around 100 students, providing them access to online learning resources through a private cell network. Hanson said it will be their own private cellular network. The technology will work similar to how data on cellular phones works.
“It’s basically the same thing, it’s 4G LTE service,” Hanson said. “The difference is that we would own the infrastructure, and we would be able to control and maintain that service for our patrons as opposed to your normal LTE providers like Verizon and Sprint.”
The project is already underway—Motorola is expected to be here within the month to begin building out.
“We’ve already signed our contract with Motorola, and they are creating a plan,” Hanson said. “We gave them [Motorola] a map and showed them where our lower-income students lived, and so then they came out and said here’s strategic spots where you can put antennas.”
The city will provide the locations for the towers and help install and maintain the infrastructure.
“We’ve got three sites that we’re starting with,” Hanson said. “The north and south water towers, and Memorial Auditorium. They anticipate that the range on those antennas will be somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two miles. We think that will give us some decent coverage in town that we would in the future like to be able to build it out a little further.”
Hanson said the first phase of the project will allow the district to get the service into approximately 100 households, but each household can support more than one device, meaning it can support more than one student.
“It’ll be 100 devices (modems) we can send home to kids, but multiple Chromebooks can fit on one device, so when I say 100 homes that could be 150 kids.”
As an extension of the district’s already existing network, it would maintain the same security and restrictions. It will be a private network which allows the district to control what devices are on the network, and which websites are accessible. Hanson intends to create a sustainable plan that will continue to move forward into the future.
“The money is going to dry up eventually…so you got to have a way to be able to sustain it,” Hanson said. “If we can build out the infrastructure–which is the antennas and all the connections and things like that–then we have that until the technology wears out. So, in the short term for our grant, there is no cost to our students who are able to access this…but in long-term to sustain it, we may have to…charge $5 or $10 a month just to offset part of that cost.”