Cary Clarke, a special education teacher in rural Kings County, Calif., has received family internet service for the past four years through a program instituted by her local county office of education. She said it is “the best internet we’ve ever had” and it allows her 7th grade daughter, Megan, to do schoolwork, research, and collaborative projects from home on a school-issued Chromebook.
Stories about rural areas securing internet connections for the first time have abounded in recent years, in part thanks to federal programs such as E-rate, as well as industry forces that have led to declining costs and improved service.
Kings County Calif. Office of Education
Enrollment: 27,000 students
Schools Districts Served: 13
Education Buildings: 54
Median Household Income: $47,341*
But what makes Clarke’s story different is that her family receives at-home internet from the county office of education rather than a commercial carrier. Furthermore, rather than receive the broadband connections from fiber wires stretching to their home, their connection is delivered by towers built on schoolhouse roofs that send signals across the airwaves.
Jerry Waymire, the assistant superintendent for information systems in the Kings County office of education, started working on the cost-effective solution to the lack of high-quality internet access in most of his county in 2011. He did so by leveraging an arcane federal resource, a band of spectrum called the Educational Broadband Service.
The technology, which is fundamentally the same as the 4G LTE networks used by commercial carriers, works much like a series of giant, countywide Wi-Fi routers. The key difference is that it takes Federal Communications Commission permission to send so much information so far over the airwaves. Some additional hardware, such as small antennas, also need to be bought and installed in some students’ homes to ensure clear signals.
Albemarle County in Virginia has similar network-building efforts underway, and Northern Michigan University has asuccessful—and growing—EBS-powered network already in place. Many school districts, however, no longer have access to the spectrum because they’ve leased it away to commercial telecoms. In most cases, school systems never had any EBS spectrum to begin with because they never applied for a share when the FCC was giving it away for free.
Since the FCC stopped issuing new EBS licenses after a 1995 round of applications, many districts still can’t acquire the estimated billions worth of spectrum still residing with the agency to address their technology needs.
Back in rural San Joaquin Valley, Megan Clarke can access instructional videos and update shared files on Google docs from her home—something that would have been unthinkable before the county stepped in with an option for affordable broadband. Clarke’s immediate area is not served by high-speed fiber lines, and without the county’s solution, Cary Clarke believes her children’s schoolwork would be difficult to complete.
“We’ve been through the gamut,” she said. “We are very grateful.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Homegrown Network Serves Schools