Enlarge /. A parked school bus in Brooklyn, New York.
As education systems in the U.S. strive to enable distance learning in the age of COVID-19, the harsh realities of the country's digital divide continue to show. Not all areas have access to reliable broadband. Not all children have access to a laptop. And even if both conditions are met, not all families have an Internet connection at home. According to FCC data from 2019, about 20 million Americans have no access to fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbit / s down and 3 Mbit / s up. The Associated Press estimates that approximately 18 percent of U.S. students fall into this category.
With school districts across the country struggling to translate classroom experience virtually, more and more of them have found at least one out-of-the-box DIY solution to this basic connectivity issue: the classic, large, yellow (diesel) school bus as a WiFi hub.
From Austin, Texas to South Bend, Indiana, Millard County, Utah, Toledo, Ohio, Petal, Mississippi (and countless other areas), these timeless symbols of a traditional school day are strategically used with Wi-Fi networks in tow to the most needy To help students in a district.
"We try to reach (our students) in every possible way," said Kevin Schwartz, technology officer of the Austin School of Education and Systems, during a board meeting in April, the Austin American-Statesman said. "There may be a few doors in the hallway or across town, but they're being driven out. So that's a big job … It's not just about giving a child a computer and a hotspot are grants and other programs, that we want to bring together. "
Enlarge /. A bus in Montgomery, Alabama is being equipped with a cradlepoint router.
Details may vary by location, but in general the buses come from public-private partnerships between a school district (bus provision) and an ISP (equipment delivery) in the region. Officials equip a fleet of buses with routers or mobile hotspots and then deploy them strategically in the most needy areas. Buses park at certain locations during the consistent time slots on school day so families can regularly plan reliable connectivity. On the user side, these spontaneous networks are limited and blocked for some basic security precautions: they are often only compatible with district-issued Chromebooks (i.e., content restrictions), can only be used within a few hundred feet of the bus, and are only accessible after entering a basic SSID password. A user guide for the cellular networks deployed in Austin this week can be found here.
While this isn't a perfect solution – students still need hardware and transportation to get within range of a cellular network, for example, and both hours and locations are limited – it's definitely something. And since education, like all industries, controls the transition to COVID-19 existence, something is much better than nothing.