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4G Bridges the Digital Divide in Rural Areas

President Obama hopes to bring high-speed wireless Internet to all rural areas in the next five years.
rural 4G
Connecting to the Internet—especially through 4G—improves the one-to-one teaching experience in the classroom and at home.

President Obama hopes to bring high-speed wireless Internet to all rural areas in the next five years with the National Wireless Initiative he announced last year.

Michigan already has a head start in offering this to its students. Northern Michigan University (NMU), located about 500 miles northwest of Detroit, has set up the largest educational WiMAX 4G network in the nation to provide high-speed Internet access to all K12 and college students in the area. A WiMAX network delivers wireless service to large geographical areas.

In 2009, the NMU IT team added antennas to the top of a water tank that sits in the middle of Powell Township, which is near the university on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This project was funded by Intel, which donated wireless equipment, and Lenovo, which donated 4G- capable laptops. At 100 megabits per second, the new wireless network is 100 times faster than before. Since last school year, students in the Powell Township School District have had access to the WiMAX network at school and home.

David Maki, chief technical officer at NMU, says that Powell Township had P1 service, which operated at 1.5 megabits per second, making it impossible to use online resources efficiently. The WiMAX network has changed the way students learn in the K12 classroom and at NMU. It has allowed K12 students to download digital content and has made distance education a possibility, he adds.

Lenovo is also working to extend 4G access in rural schools by making all of their tablets and laptops 4G capable. Michael Schmedlen, director of worldwide education and public health care at Lenovo, says universal access is a must, as more states are legislating that K12 students take at least two online courses to graduate from high school. 4G operates at up to 10 times the speed of 3G, making it much easier to stream and download educational content.

“The transition from 3G to 4G will be very significant in the delivery of rich curricular resources. It will level the playing field for students who can’t afford broadband access and allow schools to feel secure to take the next steps toward digital textbooks and online assessments,” states Schmedlen. While Intel and Lenovo funded the initiative at NMU, federal funds may be available for other districts nationwide seeking 4G capabilities. “The best route for schools to finance this type of project is to review what is available through e-Rate, shop around for a quote, apply for a grant through the Department of Education, and work with a mobile virtual network operator,” says Schmedlen.