California schools bridge digital divide with CBRS

Late night alarms from Grayson Elementary were pulling Jeff Menge out into the night even before the pandemic hit. “It turned out to be that students were hopping the fence to sit inside where there are tables, just to be able to access the student Wi-Fi to be able to do their homework,” he said. Menge is assistant superintendent of business services at Patterson Joint Unified School District, which includes students from eastern Santa Clara County and western Stanislaus County, California. More than 70% of the student body is classified as low-income. “A lot of them either don’t have access to internet or can’t afford it,” Menge said.

When COVID-19 shut down the schools, many students were completely cut off from teachers, classmates and assignments. The district had already been working on plans to help more families get internet access, but the exigency of the shutdown combined with the windfall of CARES Act funding accelerated the project. At first, the district provided hotspots to families, but it soon found that data limits and poor connections were taking too many students offline.

The district pivoted to Motorola Solutions’ Nitro private wireless network, installing CBRS radios and antennas at all eight schools in the district with help from Motorola partner BearCom. Two thousand families will receive Nitro modems, wireless routers, and SIM cards that they can put into district-issued Chromebooks in order to connect to the CBRS network. To date, the total cost of the project is roughly $2 million.

All traffic on the CBRS network is routed back to the district central office and through its firewall. “They get the same level of access they would if they were on site,” Menge said.

RELATED: 25 Utah schools to deploy private LTE using CBRS

Menge and his team use a portal to monitor traffic and can even see which houses have not connected, so they can reach out to families that are having problems with the equipment. The school also supports a bilingual hotline so that people can call in for help.

So far a lot of calls have been from families that are very grateful, Menge said. “Even if they had something in the home, a cell phone or whatever, I think this is a more permanent solution, and I think it’s brought a lot of comfort to families that felt like they couldn’t provide for their students or their kids,” he said. 

Many students in this district live very close to their schools, so with tower sites at all eight schools, the Patterson district says it can reach at least 85% of students. “We had initially planned on about a 1,000 foot radius, and I think that we’re getting a little bit better than that,” Menge said. If all 2,000 student homes in the district end up connecting to the network, more than 4,000 students will be able to access their schoolwork. 

Families can keep the wireless routers for as long as they have students enrolled in one of the district schools, Menge said. He expects the benefit of the CBRS network to outlast the pandemic. “It was really a need well before this started because they still have to do their research and homework and all the other things that go along with normal in-person school,” he said. 

Patterson is one of several U.S. school districts exploring CBRS private wireless as a way to bridge the digital divide and help students stay connected. Motorola Solutions said it has heard from schools across the country who are eager to ensure broadband access for students.