Rural schools that don’t have the ability to build or maintain a wireless network may have another option that gives students internet access in class and at home: LTE networks.
LTE, or Long Term Evolution, is a wireless technology that offers fast data download and upload speeds for cell phones and tablets. While Wi-Fi is delivered by building access points that connect to the local area network, LTE (commonly known as 4G) is powered by cellular carriers’ cell towers and requires a monthly fee.
Most iPads and other mobile devices can operate on LTE, says Phil Emer, director of technology planning and policy at the Friday Institute for Education Innovation, a research and outreach organization at North Carolina State University. LTE access costs about $30 per device per month. This rate needs to drop below $10 to be a practical model for schools, he says. Costs will be determined by this summer’s E-rate modernization plan, details of which were announced after press time.
Emer says he has seen some smaller schools in North Carolina choosing LTE over Wi-Fi, and the same is likely happening in other states.
“It’s not a prevalent model yet, but it helps address the digital divide issue when you’re talking about digitizing everything,” Emer says. “Kids that don’t have internet access at home will still be able to access content, and have a level of equity.”
For many rural districts, it’s difficult to find technicians to build, manage and update sophisticated Wi-Fi networks, Emer adds. “In those environments an LTE provider could be a good approach, because they would deploy and run the school wireless network,” and the district would not have to hire an outside engineer, Emer says.
Wi-Fi speeds depend on the amount of bandwidth the school or district has purchased and the type of networking equipment installed. Meanwhile, LTE speeds are more consistent, says Kevin Carman, director of education channel marketing at AT&T.
States deploying digital learning mandates need to ensure consistent internet connections across all districts, Emer says. This may mean different connectivity models for different districts, depending on factors such as school location and number of students who have internet access at home.
“It’s a balance of capital costs vs. operating costs,” he says. “Most districts use one-time buckets of money, like grant, to put in an infrastructure that doesn’t have good sustainability.”
AT&T currently provides LTE or a combination of LTE and Wi-Fi for 1-to-1 programs in 10 school districts, Carman says.
Most of these districts wanted to ensure coverage for all students while they are at home, he adds. The number of schools will grow as a result of President Barack Obama’s ConnectED Initiative to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband internet by 2017. As part of ConnectED, AT&T and Sprint are offering $100 million each in LTE and Wi-Fi connections for low-income students.