The reopening of schools and businesses may not mean the end of online learning, and this could have implications for private wireless.
AT&T recently released a study, which found teachers and parents overwhelmingly in support of hybrid learning going forward. Parents want their kids to have access to online classes when they're sick, and teachers want to be able to run lessons virtually on bad weather days. Teachers also want their students to have access to online tutoring.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, seven in 10 teachers were assigning homework that required access to the internet even before the global pandemic. The Commission's $7.2 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund was established to help close the so-called homework gap by reimbursing schools for the purchase of eligible services and equipment that can support connectivity for students.
The federal funds can be used by school districts to purchase commercially available broadband service, and in cases where no service is available, they may be used for what Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel calls "self-provisioning."
Self-provisioning is already underway in some U.S. school districts. In Tucson, the city government took the lead in commissioning a CBRS network with help from JMA Wireless, so that students could get online. In Salt Lake City, Murray City School District is working with CommScope to build a CBRS network.
Districts report that CBRS networks do not always propagate far enough to reach all students, but it is better than Wi-Fi in this respect. One of the main hurdles to more deployments is education about the technology, which would typically come to a school district through a trusted systems integrator that they have worked with previously.
"We don't lead with CBRS," admitted Brian Louderback, who oversees sales to school districts and municipalities for Insight, the systems integrator that managed the Tucson network. That project was initiated by an email from Tucson CIO Collin Boyce to JMA Wireless.
Insight and other integrators typically have more experience with Wi-Fi and mobile hotspots than with CBRS, but Louderback thinks interest in CBRS will increase in the months ahead.
"We are seeing a lot of interest and a lot of excitement around CBRS," Louderback said. "Wi-Fi has its limitations, and the AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon solutions have some limitations as well." He said a number of districts connected their students to carrier networks using hotspots during the pandemic but found that the hotspots did not have the bandwidth to keep multiple students connected at the same time. In addition, the districts are now facing huge phone bills from their carriers.
"They're all trying to come up with solutions to provide the same outcome, but do it in a more cost effective way," said Louderback. "CBRS obviously has a play in the market."
CBRS is more likely to gain traction with school districts in geographies that allow for the best possible propagation and economics. Flat areas with relatively dense populations create the opportunity to reach a large number of students with each radio. Medium-to-large school districts in middle America are probably better candidates than districts in large coastal cities. That's because the U.S. Navy has the right to use the CBRS spectrum ahead of all commercial users, so spectrum availability in coastal areas is less certain. In addition, the FCC has auctioned licenses to use the spectrum to service providers and large enterprises, and many of these licenses cover large urban areas, making competition for CBRS spectrum even tighter.
School districts typically use the spectrum under the General Authorized Access provision, meaning that they come behind the Navy and all licensed users.