Wi-Fi Wired School Buses: The Next Big Thing for Internet Access

California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), situated along the Salton Sea in one of the poorest sections of the country, has found a unique way to deliver Internet access to its low-income students: their school buses. The district installed routers in two of its buses, allowing students access to the Internet on their school-issued tablets during their morning and afternoon commutes.

This just goes to show that cash-strapped schools can augment their students’ education, just by thinking a little outside of the school walls – and the box. But is the model one that generalizes outside of CVUSD? To determine this, we’ll take a close look at the experiment and extrapolate from there.

Image via Flickr by ThoseGuys119

Internet Access: More Crucial Than Ever

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently wrote about the fundamental necessity of Internet access for all on his blog. Unfortunately, recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that under 50 percent of all low-income households have access to the Internet. Wheeler describes the digital divide between people of lower and higher socioeconomic status as an important social hurdle to be conquered. The disparity represents an enormous disadvantage for the “have nots” in today’s society.

A Basic Human Right

Internet access was once thought of as a privilege. According to a 24-country survey by CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust, it is now a basic human right, as it helps us achieve socially, economically, and academically in ways we never could before. A 2014 report by Deloitte found that Internet access for all people, young and old, means:

  • increased productivity, entrepreneurship, and economic growth
  • improved health via education and patient monitoring
  • universal access to educational resources
  • improved societal cohesion through connectivity

In addition, there are a few reasons why students specifically benefit from Wi-Fi in the home.

Consider these advantages:

  • Wi-Fi can supplement classroom education by providing access to online courses.
  • Children with computers are more likely to stay at home and keep out of trouble.
  • Truancy, crime, and other “nonproductive” activities are reduced by the presence of a home computer.
  • Students and parents have access to school websites that broadcast assignments and other important information.

America’s Digital Divide: Getting Worse, Not Better

In light of the Deloitte report, it is clearly in everyone’s best interest to make our world’s digital divide smaller, not larger. Google representative Erica Swanson predicts that her company’s fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) program, known as Google Fiber, will do just that. The program is intended to bring high-speed Internet service to qualifying neighborhoods, or “fiberhoods.”

However, experts like the University of New Haven’s Eun-A Park warn that Google’s high-speed offering could actually make the divide worse. This worsening will occur, Park says, as the “haves” line up to pay their $10 FTTP registration fee and the “have nots” step out of line. The problem is that Google refuses to create fiberhoods in areas of the U.S. where the people cannot pay the price — areas like Salton City, Calif., where poverty-stricken CVUSD students reside.

CVUSD’s Struggle

CVUSD, like hundreds of other school districts across the nation, provides an iPad to each student for school and home use. In 2009, the district shelled out $3 million to update its connectivity. Students at CVUSD’s West Shores High School, however, did not receive the same high-quality Internet connection that other schools did. According to a publication by the Riverside County Office of Education, the high school is in such a remote location that it was hard for technicians to figure out a way to bring the technology to the school.

To remedy this situation, CVUSD provided one of its two Wi-Fi buses to service West Shores. So far, the results have been positive. With commutes as long as one hour or more each way, the routers allow students to complete homework and other enrichment activities on their tablets as they ride. What’s more, the district authorized these two school buses to park at designated trailer parks overnight, providing more Internet access after the ride home.

CVUSD administrators would like to outfit all 90 of their school buses with routers, but that would cost about $290,000. At this time, the district could only afford to pay for two. Because the routers run on battery power, they last only about an hour after each bus parks at its location for the night. The idea has merit, but it will take more money — and more battery power — to make it work for the 20,000 kids that fill the seats of the CVUSD.

Superintendent Adams: Pressing for Change

The students of CVUSD are fortunate to have a proactive superintendent who cares about their access to the Internet. In an October 2014 press release, Dr. Darryl Adams announced that he would be traveling to Washington, D.C. as a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. One of the league’s major goals is to provide students with hands-on mobile technology both at school and at home.

“We need to make affordable Internet available to . . . low-income households so our entire community . . . can have all of the tools needed to thrive,” says Adams.

FCC Chairman Wheeler: E-Rate Solutions

FCC Chairman Wheeler is also toiling to find solutions to the digital divide. He would like to see more money go to the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, also known as E-Rate. The money would help fund Internet access at public libraries and schools, and it would come through a fee increase of about 16 cents per consumer phone bill. “Let’s put that (cost) in perspective,” Wheeler writes on his blog. “Over the course of the year, that represents one cup of coffee . . . at McDonald’s. Per year.”

President Obama recently commended Dr. Adams for providing each student with his or her own tablet and for mobilizing WiFi access across the district.

In Short

Ideally, all 20,000 children in the CVUSD school district would eventually have access to Wi-Fi at home, as well as on their way to and from school. Due to budgeting restrictions, the district can only afford to bring the service to a fraction of these students. And for the time being, two school buses with Wi-Fi are better than nothing.