The global pandemic hit hard in McAllen, Texas, a town just 11 miles from the Mexican border. With a 2.5% infection rate, McAllen city officials knew they should not send students and teachers back into school buildings. "We were one of the hotspots in the country. Hospitalization rates were up, number of cases were up, so we had to go 100% remote," said McAllen Independent School District Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez.
In a way, McAllen ISD was ready for remote learning because for years the city has budgeted funds to enable digital education for its 21,000 students. Every elementary student in the district receives an iPad, and every secondary school student gets a Chromebook. The students use these regularly in classroom settings, but not at home. "The problem was connectivity," explained Gonzalez. "We are 72% economically disadvantaged, so a lot of our students didn't have internet," he said.
Initially, the district purchased more than 8,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for homes without connectivity. But Gonzalez soon learned that this was not an adequate solution, since many parts of the city had no Wi-Fi for the hotspots to connect to. Families were going to parks and fast food restaurants to get Wi-Fi so that students could try to do their homework.
McAllen's city government stepped in to help, working with Frontera Consulting, a South Texas consultant that has wireless network expertise. According to Frontera co-founder Drew Lentz, the city approved a budget of $3.9 million for the network as part of a larger $6 million project. He said McAllen followed all federal guidelines and stipulations so that they could submit the expenses for the network to be reimbursed by CARES funding that was received by Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located.
Cambium Networks and Federated Wireless provided the equipment and expertise to build the network. Antennas are mounted on city water towers, and fixed wireless access points are attached to city light poles. The solution includes 24 Cambium PMP 450m base stations and more than 1,000 Cambium outdoor Wi-Fi access points. Spectrum controller services, which ensure that the network does not interfere with incumbent users, are provided at no cost by Federated Wireless.
Cambium's fixed wireless equipment on a city light pole. Source: Frontera Consulting
“The deployment of this network delivers on one of the core capabilities of CBRS, which is to extend wireless connectivity to rural areas that traditionally have not had a level playing field with the rest of the country,” said Matt Mangriotis, director of product management at Cambium Networks, in a statement.
"From what we've seen so far, our teachers have been doing a tremendous job," said Gonzalez. "Students are uploading their assignments and turning in their assignments and interacting with their classmates, and we're doing the very best that we can based on the circumstances, but it would not be possible without the connectivity."
The CBRS network was built to enable remote learning but is available to all residents of McAllen. "Every child, parent and senior citizen who needs connectivity now has it. When you look at McAllen, we’re now not only a ‘Connected City,’ we’re a digital leader," said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.