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Albemarle proposes lease of broadband spectrum to pay for WiFi hotspots

Albemarle County owns one of four blocks of broadband spectrum in Central Virginia that were set aside for educational purposes, but the school division is the only entity that has not yet leased its license to a commercial internet company.

That’s changing.

The division is planning to lease its spectrum of Educational Broadband Service to Shentel and use that money to purchase and support about 500 WiFi hotspot devices that will go to students who currently don’t have internet access at home, according to a presentation at a recent county School Board meeting.

The partnership could allow for the band to be more fully utilized and provide more opportunities for Shentel to serve county residents, division officials said.

Previously, the division was working to use its band of the Educational Broadband Service to connect students with the internet, but that plan moved slowly and required more resources.

The hotspots, which use cell signals to create a WiFi signal, are part of a multi-pronged approach that the division is taking to provide internet access to more of its students. About 6% of Albemarle County students don’t have access to the internet at home, according to the school system.

By 2021, the division wants to connect 90% of those students, said Christine Diggs said, chief technology officer.

Students who lack access to the internet will be able to receive a Kajeet hotspot from the school division. Kajeet, a Northern Virginia telecommunications company, works with all cell carriers, so students can find a hotspot that connects with a cell signal in their area.

The devices will be available to students in middle and high schools first because they take school-issued computers home with them, Diggs said in a previous interview.

Shentel already leases the other blocks of EBS spectrum in the area, School Board attorney Ross Holden said at the meeting.

The division and Shentel agreed to a 10-year lease for the license with two automatic 10-year renewals.

If the lease is approved by the School Board, Shentel initially will pay the division $8,100 a month; that rate will gradually increase over the years.

“The reason for such a long-term lease is so that the cost of building out the broadband service can be amortized and revenues generated over a period of time sufficient to make that effort financially viable,” Holden said.

The lease would start in May. The School Board is expected to vote on the agreement at its meeting on Feb. 27.


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