School districts buy into CBRS, Wi-Fi for affordable broadband

Two organizations released a study this past week showing the importance of leveraging public schools, libraries and other community anchors in connecting students and their communities caught in the digital divide.

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) Wireless Future Project and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition released the study and a set of case studies to demonstrate that extending school and library broadband networks can be feasible and cost-effective to reach low-income households.

The SHLB Coalition advocates for broadband “To-and-Through” schools, libraries and other “anchor institutions.” That sounds kind of like a no-brainer, but a lot of times, the federal funding requirements make it hard to spend resources off a campus. For example, in 2021, the OTI and SHLB Coalition petitioned the FCC to permit the use of E-rate funds to help pay to connect students who don’t have adequate internet access at home.

Some school districts, libraries and local governments are choosing to self-deploy networks because they’re not getting adequate signals from cellular carriers, particularly in low-income or less densely populates areas. Now that they have the option to use Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CRBRS) spectrum along with Wi-Fi, they have more avenues to build their own.

The study, conducted by Raul Katz, president of Telecom Advisory Services, looked at various models, including the use of 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service (EBS), CBRS at 3.5 GHz, unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum or a combination of those. The study analyzed the economics of each potential option and compared them to purchasing service from a commercial service operator.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, & Wi-Fi

Back in 2013, the Council Bluffs Community School District in Council Bluffs, Iowa, laid out the problem: Students were going home without ready access to the internet, and they were showing up in the early hours of the morning to use the Wi-Fi at the school, explained district CTO John Stile during a webinar Wednesday.

The district knew they had to do something about it. By the summer of 2014, they deployed Wi-Fi on street poles. The school pushed out the SSID to the students and they immediately connected. Initially, they promised to get Wi-Fi to the front door of residences, but it turns out that most of the time, they can get Wi-Fi throughout the homes.

They used fiber and city streetlights and poles to make it all happen. The city’s mayor and the school superintendent were both on board from the get-go, he said.

“The big take-away for us was the city and the school district were working hand in hand to develop this,” he said. Smartwave Technologies is serving as the engineering partner.  

It appears to be working. When the pandemic hit, the school district was already prepared and only needed to find alternative home access solutions for fewer than 10 students, he said.

The population of the district is around 9,000 and the network serves about 7,500 student households, according to the case study. The network operating cost is currently $100,000 annually, split evenly by the district and the city since the network serves both students and the public. The majority of the cost is for SmartWave’s maintenance, troubleshooting and buildout services.

Fresno schools & CBRS

In another case study, Philip Neufeld, executive officer of Technology Services at the Fresno Unified School District, described how the Fresno district tackled their lack of connectivity. The school district has about 70,000 students and about 85% of them are eligible for the free school lunch program for low-income families.

Part of their problem was the lack of adequate network coverage in poorer neighborhoods. In areas of poverty, cellular coverage is poor, with fewer towers and older equipment so commercial hotspots don’t work well, he said, encouraging anyone who’s interested to gather a few cell phones from different carriers and walk around in poverty-prone neighborhoods to see what it’s like.  

Fresno school officials held conversations with carriers and the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). They soon learned that the regulatory environment and business models leave urban areas underserved, he said.

Carriers aren’t motivated to invest in these neighborhoods due to the marginal returns, he said. Fresno school leaders concluded that “it’s one of these things where if we don’t do something, probably no one else will,” he said.

They had to make a choice on whether to use mesh Wi-Fi or LTE. Because they were unable to get access to the city’s light poles, they ended up using LTE, “which is great,” he said. Next they had to decide whether to use EBS or CBRS spectrum.  

Unfortunately for the school, the EBS in the market was leased out to T-Mobile, and they weren’t interested in letting the school use it. “So we had to choose CBRS,” which has worked out well, he said.

In the first year, they were able to access 15 “vertical assets,” namely its own buildings, to serve as towers. “We found that when it’s your own building, you can do things quickly on it,” he said. They’re now moving to the next phase that includes 30 structures for hosting antennas. Nokia is supplying infrastructure gear.

The Fresno district expects the total buildout costs will be about $7.7 million, with annual operating cost averaging $443,000, including the purchase of additional CPEs.

Responding to the oft-heard criticism that schools aren’t capable of running a network, Stile said almost all schools have some Wi-Fi outside, such as a football field, and most schools have staff that are currently working with Wi-Fi to some degree. A contractor handles management of the network for Council Bluffs.  

Neufeld said Fresno has 5,000 access points across the school district and it partnered with a local wireless internet service provider (WISP) to manage the LTE network.