South Bend schools launching private LTE network to give free at-home internet access to students
The South Bend Community School Corporation is launching a pilot program to create a district owned LTE network. It’s the next evolution of the Citywide Classroom program and part of the district’s ongoing efforts to provide at-home internet access for students.
Citywide Classroom was created in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was funded by a $1.8 million Governors Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, Grant.
It originally provided free at-home Comcast internet service or mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for students, but the program was expanded in January 2022 to include 21st century scholars and district employees.
So far, district officials say that it has served at least 4,214 students, 1,100 21st century scholars and 331 district employees.
And on Wednesday evening, the school board voted to approve a new pilot program to create a private, district run LTE network.
Patrick Stalvey, the district’s Chief Technology Officer, said it’s a cheaper and more permanent solution to eventually provide free at-home internet access to all district students.
“Citywide Classroom South Bend would be distributing these hotspots in a similar way that it does right now but providing a new way to connect students using an option that can be very long term,” Stalvey said. “It’s sustaining costs are very low compared to hotspots.”
Plus, the district would have full control over the network.
“It can be as simple and secure as logging onto Wi-Fi in the school,” Stalvey said.
The pilot project has a total one-year cost of $682,039, and Stalvey said it’s being funded by $386,205 in GEER grant dollars, $150,000 from the city of South Bend and $150,000 courtesy of an anonymous donor.
Once set up, the network’s ongoing costs would be about $40,000 each year, a significant savings from the $60,000 to $70,000 per month the district is currently spending on mobile hotspots.
The LTE network was made possible, Stalvey said, by the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which was approved by the federal government in 2017 and allows the creation of private cell networks.
The first LTE towers will be installed on top of Riley High School, Jackson Middle School and a telecommunications mast owned by Hayes Towers.
That only covers a portion of the district, but Stalvey said they are looking for additional tower sites and hope to expand the LTE network district wide if the pilot goes well.
Motorola and ERS Wireless are providing the technology to run the network, which is being installed as a partnership between the district and the city of South Bend. Local nonprofit EnFocus will continue to provide project management services.
City employees will also have access to the LTE network, but students will always be given priority connectivity with a sort of ‘fast lane.’
Families can apply for Citywide Classroom online, call their school’s administrators or call the St. Joseph County Public Library at (574) 282-4646.
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