In another sign that schools will represent an important market for private wireless networks, a leading provider of K-12 connectivity solutions has purchased the LTE unit of network design consultant Red Rover, a specialist in designing private networks.
Kajeet has built a business connecting K-12 students to cellular networks, first as an MVNO and now as a provider of mobile hotspots, school bus Wi-Fi, LTE-enabled laptops and mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE) services. The 18-year-old company works with all the major U.S. carriers as well as several international operators and counts roughly 2,500 school districts as customers. Now, Kajeet sees demand for services that the public networks cannot always provide to districts.
"There are places where the commercial carrier networks don't have adequate coverage or capacity to meet the needs, especially of some rural students," said Michael Flood, SVP and GM of Kajeet's education business. He said sometimes it may be more cost-effective for a school district, municipality, or county to own and operate a private network.
Kajeet launched a private networks division earlier this year, and has now purchased the Red Rover business to jump start the effort. As part of the acquisition, Steve Rovarino, former president of Red Rover, will join Kajeet as senior business development manager for private networks.
Flood said his team expects school districts, as well as enterprises, to increasingly require "hybrid" networks - private networks that allow users to roam onto public networks when they leave the coverage area. The logical boundaries of a private network do not always match the institution's geographic boundaries. "Most school districts cannot afford to build a comprehensive network throughout their entire district," Flood said. "They're going to need commercial carrier network partners."
Kajeet acts as an integrator and also offers network management. The company is currently working to develop its own core network solution for private wireless, Flood said, and will continue to source radio equipment and spectrum access systems from third parties. He said the company's goal is for its customers to own and operate their radio access networks while Kajeet manages the core networks and connections to public networks.
Options for schools
Flood said there are a number of different spectrum options for schools deploying private networks. He expects many districts to be General Authorized Access users of the CBRS spectrum, with some also deploying Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum if they own it. He said there are a handful of situations in which CBRS is not a good solution, including districts in which homes are too far apart, areas near the coasts in which the Navy is using the shared spectrum, and congested areas where a Priority Access License holder may already be using the CBRS spectrum. Some schools may end up leasing licensed spectrum to deploy their private networks, Flood added.
Kajeet is focusing on private networks for the education market as government funding flows into broadband for schools. Flood said several federal and state initiatives can help schools pay for networks, including the American Rescue Plan and state and local emergency funds. He said funds dedicated to supporting Native Americans and minority-serving institutions can often be used for broadband. In addition, $65 billion is earmarked for broadband in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill recently passed by the Senate, and most of that money will go to deployment of networks rather than consumer subsidies.
The FCC's Emergency Connectivity Fund is not a big driver for Kajeet's private LTE networks business, since schools cannot use it to build their own networks unless no service provider offers adequate coverage in their area.
Flood said California is probably the state that has deployed the most K-12 private networks to date, adding that he is starting to see a lot of interest now from schools in Texas. He hopes that by learning the private networks business in schools throughout the country, Kajeet can prepare to take on the enterprise market.
"That will probably be the larger part of the business in the long run," Flood said. Like schools, enterprises will want to access private and public networks using one piece of hardware and one billing entity, he said. This typically requires roaming agreements and core network coordination between private and public networks, which are Kajeet's target areas of expertise.
"Our aim is to build that hybrid network environment that can use the best of private network and the best of commercial carrier networks when necessary," Flood said.