Fort Worth school district builds sustainable CBRS network

Federal funds and municipal bond money have flowed to school districts during the past two years to help connect students to the internet during the global pandemic. Some of this funding has helped create private LTE networks using CBRS spectrum under General Authorized Access. One of these networks serves Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD).

FWISD CIO Marlon Shears came to Fort Worth from a nearby Dallas district, which had also built a CBRS network. Shears was determined to create a sustainable network, according to Gary Ash, VP of network solutions at BearCom, the integrator that oversaw the project. The network was designed to favor capital investment rather than ongoing operating expenses, since a windfall of funding was available from a bond and from the government’s Emergency Connectivity Fund. The district will own all the network infrastructure, including the monopole towers BearCom is building on school properties, and the district will host the network core in its data center.

Ash said all the vendors worked together to bring a core network and four radio sites online within 60 days. Project vendors included CommScope, Athonet, Airspan and Cradlepoint.

Athonet provided a high-capacity redundant core and partnered with BearCom on site for the deployment at the district’s data center. Ash said the district wanted the core on site because “cloud-based means subscriptions,” and FWISD wants a sustainable network that minimizes ongoing opex.

CommScope provides the Spectrum Access System that enables the school district to use CBRS spectrum whenever higher-priority users are not. For CBRS spectrum, the highest priority is assigned to the U.S. Navy, so landlocked areas like Fort Worth typically have fewer competitors for access than do coastal communities.

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Cradlepoint, which is owned by Ericsson, supplies the home Wi-Fi routers that use SIM cards to connect to the CBRS network. Ash said one router is usually sufficient for each home. The district paid for the Cradlepoint equipment with federal dollars secured through the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

FWISD supplies each student with a laptop or tablet and hands out the Cradlepoint devices to families along with the access devices. The devices can only be used to access the school’s fire-walled network.

Airspan is providing the CBRS eNodeBs (CBSDs) and the RAN software. So far twelve CBSDs have been deployed, spread across the four sites. Ash said students up to three quarters of a mile away from each radio usually get good connections. Those further away can connect when BearCom installs an outdoor access point and connects that to the inside router via Ethernet.


The CBSDs are mounted on trailers and rooftops for now, but will migrate to monopoles. “While we’re operating the network, we’re going through the permitting process to build permanent monopoles,” Ash explained.

The monopoles will be on school property and will be owned by the district, meaning there will be no ongoing lease payments. “They love the idea of owning that asset,” said Ash, adding that some schools might end up leasing space on their new towers to other entities.

The district hopes to connect up to 4,000 students during the first quarter of this year. Ash, who has now worked on six private cellular networks for school districts, said the speed at which this project has come online is largely due to a high level of cooperation between the city and the school district.

“It’s very exciting that you have the funding, the network and frequency, and you have political desire to go solve this problem,” he said. “All those things coming together has kind of made this possible."