Education news

Wireless internet is just about everywhere these days. From the smart phones in everyone’s pockets to the high speed connections within homes across Polk County, having access to the web from anyplace at high speed is just as important in contemporary times as clean drinking water and electricity.

However here locally and other places across the state and country, there’s a big gap between what small towns and cities have available for internet, and their urban counterparts. Where Wifi is a staple of communities in towns, out past the city line a different story develops.

Which is why local and state lawmakers have been hard at work this year to start the process of spreading high speed internet access out to areas where coverage has been lacking for years to not only provide economic development opportunities for rural areas, but also to help with education efforts in the home.

Big tech companies have also been involved in the process of getting more high speed options out to areas traditionally underserved in the process, and Google was the latest to announce they’re expanding a national pilot program to help educators and students have access they need.

At the beginning of April, the tech giant announced that they’re going to add wireless access to 70 more buses across the country in 16 different rural school districts, along with Google Chromebooks for students to use while riding to and from school so they can make up for access not had at home to complete homework assignments.

Their program isn’t impacting Polk County locally, but that’s because it is an idea already in place here and working well.

Superintendent Laurie Atkins said the program started a few years ago equipped six buses out of the 66 operated by Polk School District with wireless internet access for students to use to and from school campuses, but mainly for those students who aren’t yet heading home for the day.

“It provides our students that are on extra-curricular activities after school an opportunity to complete homework before arriving at their location,” Atkins said. “This provides students extra time at home after activities without the stress of having to get homework completed.”

She added that it is a program Polk School District hopes to expand to more buses in the future.

The pilot program started under former Superintendent William Hunter at first had only four buses using wireless internet when started in 2015, and added two more in the years following.

Buses become rolling wireless internet providers for students and educators alike through the use of devices commonly referred to as “hot spots” in the industry, small battery-powered modems that also broadcast a Wifi signal that use cellular networks in the same way a phone gets data.

The only difference is that because the hot spot isn’t handling any voice or text traffic, it can use more of the computing resources within to direct data from the internet to devices on the bus more efficiently.

Costs for the devices and data plans vary by provider, but the average cost for a 4G-connected data modem begins around $50, and can cost as little as $30 a month to operate with only a small amount of data allowed.