Connecting the unconnected–what are we waiting for? (Reader Forum)

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COVID-19 has caused a seismic shift in demand for internet capacity with millions of students suddenly shifting to various levels of remote learning – from primary schools to universities – at the same time that many of their parents are continuing to work from home. As schools and Universities reopen this fall, they need to continue to offer effective online learning.

But the pandemic also underscores just how much more work still remains to close the enormous gap between the digital haves and have-nots. Even in the United States, this disparity impacts students and teachers living in underserved regions that still lack adequate broadband.

Students can have difficulty in participating in sustained remote learning, but poor internet connections block instructors from conducting effective classes, particularly for real-time streaming sessions.

The challenges range from the economic difficulties to the absence of viable networks. At first blush, that might sound daunting. But this should not turn into “Mission Impossible.”

Both Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP), and Managed Service Providers (MSP) working collaboratively with local school districts can bring forward two immediate solutions to the problem: Drive-In/outdoor Wi-Fi Access and/or Fixed Wireless Access for affected residential addresses.

Many schools have large parking lots and athletic fields. By distributing outdoor Wi-Fi access points across the parking facilities, school districts can provide drive-up intranet access. This would allow students and families to maintain social distancing while accessing files and assignments. Outdoor Wi-Fi access points can also be installed on or near homes for access from the home.

The distributed Wi-Fi access points can be connected by wireless point-to-point (PTP) links or point-to-multipoint (PMP) wide-area networks located on the roof of the school and wired into its LAN. Street light poles or solar panels can provide power, or access points can be mounted on temporary tripods or the roofs of school buses.

This “Drive-In Wi-Fi” approach offers a quick fix for many. But it won’t work everywhere. Some schools are not within driving distance. Nor is this approach feasible for real-time, videoconferencing instruction.

Modeling possible solutions

This is why we must also use fixed wireless broadband.

Elementary schools in urban and suburban environments are ideal locations for master sites, since they typically serve neighborhoods close to campus. But any school facility can serve as host. All you need is a two- to three-meter, non-penetrating roof mount on top of the building, and a 3 GHz or 5 GHz point-to-multipoint wide-area network. That approach will reach many of the underserved students – and quickly and economically bring high-capacity broadband to hundreds of homes.

School districts are obviously not wireless internet services providers and are unlikely to be able to plan, deploy and commission a network in a timely fashion. Thus, a public-private partnership with local WISPs is necessary. The school district would make their facilities available, providing the point of presence and coordinating the students in need. WISPs would supply and manage the infrastructure and deploy the client premise equipment.

The WISP’s existing network coverage could also extend the coverage area beyond that achievable from the school district’s network. In this case, the school district and the WISP could coordinate a VLAN to allow secure bridging between the WISP’s network and the school district’s LAN.

There are a few additional considerations:

Spectrum: 5 GHz spectrum can be a scarce commodity in individual communities. Where viable, consider the use of 3 GHz. The United States is fortunate in that the FCC recently opened up the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), and there is 100 MHz of exceptionally clean spectrum readily available and perfect for this application. The use of CBRS bands will also help reach hard-to-reach locations, due to 3 GHz propagation characteristics and higher EIRP levels.

Coverage modeling. There is no sense in deploying a network if the affected students cannot be reached. You need geodata to accurately predict coverage from targeted site locations, allowing schools and WIPSs to quickly evaluate network coverage. Knowing which addresses are covered, the school can perform a reverse lookup to identify specific students that are able to receive access.

In-home Wi-Fi. A fixed wireless broadband network will deliver high capacity to a home, but the WISP should consider providing an end-to-end solution and including a home gateway/Wi-Fi hotspot as part of the solution.

Access network capacity. If leveraging an existing network, the WISP may need to increase the capacity of its network due to new subscribers and existing users needing more bandwidth. One option here is clean spectrum, like 3 GHz mentioned above. A second option is to leverage Multi-User MIMO, which substantially increases the spectral efficiency of the sector.

Backhaul capacity. Inevitably, internet access must find its way to a PoP and backhaul can quickly become a constraint with the increase in access demand. Thus companies might need to consider advanced architectures to increase capacity. Use of V-Band (70 GHz) paths may also be an option for relatively short paths as well.

Field-proven solutions

What I’ve described above is not pie-in-the-sky rumination. We worked with a school district in central Illinois composed of a high school, a junior high school and four elementary schools serving approximately 2,000 students. In collaboration with a local WISP, Maxwire, we completed coverage modeling from the seven school buildings and seven Maxwire sites in just 48 hours. Based on that coverage modeling, the collaborative network was able to provide broadband access to approximately 1,500 homes within the school district.

In about five working days, the school district was able to extend their intranet and effectively serve a significant percentage of their student body and teacher cadre via remote learning with the use of fixed wireless broadband. The experience speaks well of the potential for more public-private partnerships that WISPs are uniquely positioned to participate in.

It’s also a model that we can replicate globally. Considering that more than half of the world’s population still does not have access to the internet – or are hampered by poor connections – what are we waiting for?



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