As buses in Arizona’s Vail school district rumble across the roads, pedestrians might spot a curious advertisement on their sides.
Several of those yellow vehicles sport a sign declaring them to be an “Internet Bus” with Wi-Fi sponsored by a local business.
It’s just one of the ways that the 12,000-student district is trying to provide students with useful access to the Internet outside the school day and school buildings. Known for its emphasis on the digital—the district has a high school that uses only digital textbooks, and other schools in the system have extensive blended- and online-learning programs—the Vail district has transformed 12 of its 93 buses into rolling Wi-Fi hotspots. The district is just one of many around the country to have placed an emphasis on improving students’ connectivity on their way to and from school.
In the 425-square-mile district southeast of Tucson, long bus routes and commutes to sporting events can take more than an hour.
Before the district launched the mobile Wi-Fi program, students “were losing learning time,” said Superintendent Calvin Baker. The bus connectivity “certainly extends the opportunity for students to have access to the Internet.”
The program was launched more than five years ago, and it established Vail as one of the first districts in the country to equip buses with Internet connections. Currently, four of the district’s 12 Wi-Fi buses are sponsored by local business, said John V. Nunes, the assistant director of transportation. He came up with the idea of Wi-Fi on buses because his daughters attended the all-digital high school, played on sports teams, and needed a way to get their homework done on long bus rides to and from events.
In addition to students getting their schoolwork done while commuting, a side benefit has been a decline in behavioral problems on buses because students are occupied, Mr. Nunes said.
The districts’ arrangement for equipping the buses has evolved over time. Early on, the district used a different type of Wi-Fi device that needed an antenna, but it was difficult to meet federal motor-carrier regulations for mounting it to make sure it wasn’t a safety hazard, Mr. Nunes said. In addition, the metal and aluminum in the bus often scuttled the antenna’s reception. “That was one of the big headaches,” he said.
Vail now uses Verizon Cradlepoint devices, which are often distributed to drivers when they get their bus-route information and keys. Five buses with the longest routes permanently have the Wi-Fi devices, which are attached to the dashboard of the bus and plugged into a bus power outlet.
The Verizon devices act more like a cellphone and eliminate the need for antennae. Initially, the district spent $250 to acquire units and paid a $40 per month user fee for each. But now, Verizon has wrapped the costs into the district communications bill, and the district pays $15 per device, Mr. Nunes said.
The biggest problem these days is that there are not enough Wi-Fi systems to meet the district’s needs, Mr. Nunes said. Parents will often call and complain if their children are on long bus rides without Internet access.
Experts say this type of program is fairly low cost and easy to replicate by other districts.
Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates improved school broadband connections, said that even though it’s not an overall solution to the broader problem of Internet access for students outside of school, equipping a bus is a “creative” fix that can have an impact on some students. “Schools are doing this, and it’s making a difference,” he said.
Mr. Nunes said his district has fielded dozens of inquiries from districts as far away as England and Australia on how to set up similar programs
The evolution of the bus hotspots in the Vail district has coincided with the evolution of schoolwork there, Mr. Nunes noted.
“Even the elementary and middle schools are shifting to more technology, and students are getting iPads and Chromebooks,” he said. “Students who have the hardware can get their homework done, can go on Facebook, can do what they need to do.”
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A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as On the Road: Wi-Fi Access on Wheels