Albemarle County schools is shifting away from a five-year effort to build its own internet network for students — a plan that has only connected 100 households in the Southwood neighborhood.
Instead, the school wants to pivot to a quicker option that would give students hotspots by the end of this school year. Students who don’t have internet at home, typically from low-income and rural families, often can’t do homework assignments or use online resources to study.
Hotspots, which use cell signals to create a WiFi signal and tap other commercial partnerships, will ensure students can connect to the internet outside of school, said Christine Diggs, chief technology officer for the county schools.
About 6% of Albemarle County students don’t have access to internet at home, based on a division analysis of the Virginia Broadband Availability Map. Using a multi-pronged approach known as ACPS @ Home, the division is aiming to connect 90% of those students to the internet by 2021.
“The goal is that we will get devices into students’ hands much faster than we’ve been able to,” Diggs said.
Pockets throughout Albemarle County either don’t have broadband internet access or are considered underserved, meaning their service doesn’t mean state or federal standards for high-speed access. The state standard is 10 mbps, while the Federal Communications Commission standard is 25 mbps.
Diggs discussed her plans to bring the internet to more students during a recent School Board meeting. Some members questioned the accuracy of the data.
“I sense that the problem is much worse than 6% of our students,” said Steve Koleszar, a board member who represents the Scottsville district.
To connect more communities with internet, Diggs said the options are to expand fiber-optic networks by digging or to build towers as a way to boost wireless access.
For the last several years, the division has worked on an ambitious plan to use a band of the Educational Broadband Service to connect students with the internet. That plan received national media attention and other accolades when it was first announced.
“It’s moved slowly due to some realities that evolved,” said Diggs, who moved to the division a year ago. She’s the third person in the last three years to serve in a chief technology officer role.
Vince Scheivert, who served as chief information officer from 2011 to 2017, spearheaded the effort to use the Educational Broadband Service band — a part of the electromagnetic spectrum set aside for education uses — for the network. The division installed fiber-fueled devices on top of buildings or towers. Those devices then connect student devices to the internet using that EBS band.
“You could think of it as a radio frequency,” Diggs said. “We have about 100 units in the Southwood neighborhood, but that’s about all we have at this point.”
Devices have been put up on five locations throughout the county on school roofs and towers. The project started with the installation of a device on an emergency communications tower at Carter Mountain, which relies on a fiber connection from Cale Elementary, and connects to other devices within a nine-mile range, including Southwood. The other devices are under construction or in the process of identifying students, according to a division presentation.
The average connection speeds for those devices are 3 to 10 mbps, Diggs said.
However, the EBS buildout stalled due to staffing, a dependence on high-speed fiber nearby, ongoing concerns about cell towers on school property and the county’s topography.
“The availability of our staff that needs to keep our network running and our schools and internet functioning and their availability to do these installations was a challenge,” she said.
Moving forward, Diggs said the division will partner with Kajeet, a northern Virginia telecommunications company specialized in increasing students’ access to internet, to provide hotspots.
Diggs said Kajeet works with all cell carriers, so students can find a hotspot that connects with a cell signal in their area.
“And they would continue giving you one for each of the providers until they found one that could connect,” she said.
This school year, Charlottesville City Schools partnered with T-Mobile to provide hotspots to students.
Still, Kajeet’s hotspots won’t be a solution for every student who lives in an area without broadband because cell service isn’t ubiquitous throughout the county.
“That’s why we say 90% because we know there’s going to be an average of 10% approximately that we won’t just be able to reach because of lack of signal,” she said.
ACPS @ Home also includes commercial partnerships, promoting low-cost internet programs and monitoring the county efforts to increase connectivity.
Diggs is not expecting this plan to add any additional operational costs, “if our partnerships work out the way we are hoping,” she said.
Diggs said division staff members are testing the devices now and going to remote locations throughout the county to see how they work.
Diggs said staff will start with schools that have the highest concentrations of students without any access to broadband.
However, School Board members indicated at the meeting that they wanted the division to connect students who live in areas with broadband but can’t afford internet service.
Hotspots will be available to students in middle and high schools first because they take school-issued computers home with them, Diggs said. Schools will work with division staff members to identify students in need of hotspots.
“That’s not to say there’s not a need at the elementary level, but that’s where we’ll start is at the secondary level,” she said. “… That doesn’t mean that we won’t look at elementary.”