CBRS enables private wireless networks for education

If schools can get access to CBRS spectrum, they will be good candidates for private networks. (Getty Images)

The closure of schools nationwide due to COVID-19 highlighted the value of digital education. And teachers who were previously uncomfortable with technology had to come up to speed quickly. Even as students return to the classrooms, teachers will use technology in general, and connectivity in particular, more than before. The timing is good for CBRS, which offers schools a way to manage their own private LTE networks, not just for education, but also for secure communication with staff members in all parts of a campus.

Colleges and universities are expected to be particularly good candidates for private CBRS networks because they can offer a way to improve secure wireless service in dormitories and academic buildings. According to the CBRS Alliance, these networks could be “a differentiator to help keep and attract the best faculty and students.”

Scott Imhoff, VP of product at CBRS access equipment vendor Cambium Networks, thinks there’s a chance the FCC could consider set-asides of some portion of the CBRS spectrum for the education market, or even issue specific priority access licenses (PALs) for education. That would mean school districts wouldn’t have to bid against commercial interests, but presumably they’d still have to pay for the spectrum. But Imhoff said that the current national focus on remote learning means more funding is likely to be available. 

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“I think once the dust settles, or starts to settle, certainly at the state level and likely at the federal level there will be a reassessment of funding to support education and remote learning, and we’ll just have to pay attention to what those actions might be,” Imhoff said. 

The FCC’s E-Rate program uses money from the Universal Service Fund to subsidize Wi-Fi and broadband for school districts. The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated lawmakers to propose extensions of E-Rate for everything from school bus WiFi to home hotspots. In the future, support for fixed wireless networks that use CBRS spectrum could be another proposed use of E-Rate funds, since fixed wireless provides primary internet access for many rural households.

If schools can get access to CBRS spectrum, they will be excellent candidates for private networks, according to Imhoff. “The nice thing about schools is they’ve got backhaul, they’ve got the point of presence to the internet, and they’ve got their firewalls and access control systems in place to ensure that those networks are only being used by authorized individuals, and when they did have access they were only accessing material appropriate for education purposes,” Imhoff said. Private networks are a way to extend those firewalls so that remote students and teachers limit their use of the network to educational purposes. Imhoff offered the example of Illinois’ Prairie Grove Consolidated School District, which worked with its local ISP to extend a virtual private network (VPN) to locations throughout the district so that content restrictions could be enforced.

Colleges and universities are also expected to be strong candidates for CBRS private networks, according to CommScope, which owns CBRS access equipment vendor Ruckus and also provides a spectrum access system (SAS) that users must have in order to prevent interference with incumbent users of the spectrum.

According to CommScope, a number of schools are constructing new buildings with energy-efficient windows that block outdoor cell signals. With their own CBRS equipment, CommScope says schools can “easily interconnect to mobile operator networks” and improve network performance for users whose phones support band 48. (Examples of smartphones that support this band include the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10.) CommScope envisions colleges negotiating anchor tenant deals with service providers, which would enable the schools to offer their own mobile service plans and subsidized smartphones to students.

Push-to-talk (PTT) functionality is also important to many campuses, according to CommScope. The company says new PTT over CBRS solutions will provide the higher quality that comes with a broadband voice network, along with added security and the ability to function as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

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