10 steps for bringing connectivity home

Here's how a large Texas district developed iConnect, an innovative program that extends district-sponsored Wi-Fi access to underserved students where they live

This fall, Cypress-Fairbanks (TX) Independent School District is particularly excited about welcoming back 150 of our underserved elementary, middle, and high school students after they’ve enjoyed their first full summer of district-sponsored Wi-Fi. This group of students is the first to benefit from iConnect, a new program that extends our district’s enterprise network infrastructure with safe and secure learning systems into eligible communities.

For our pilot, we delivered remote wireless connectivity and computing devices to families at the Nayeli House Tanner Road Mobile Home Park in our Houston metro district. What’s more, we’ll soon be expanding iConnect to communities served by four more schools within our footprint. Here are the steps we recommend for getting a similar initiative done in your district.

Step 1: Reframe your mission to meet access needs at home
Although we passed a significant technology bond in 2014 that enables providing students with computing devices at school, which included a total overhaul of our network infrastructure, by 2015 we realized a significant percentage of our students had no internet access at home. This meant we were falling short of our district’s mission—to maximize every student’s potential by providing opportunity for all—because so many of our students lacked the connectivity vital for after-hours learning and collaboration. Taking this perspective, we launched a three-year effort to close the opportunity gap by finding a way to bring access to their homes.

Step 2: Do your homework at the outset
Three years ago, we started investigating how other districts were addressing after-hours access, including which technology partners they were using and new or emerging innovations that could enable us to extend access well beyond our campuses. Ultimately, we settled on regional networking services provider Layer 3 Communications, which helped us assemble other key partners such as Aruba for Wi-Fi.

Step 3: Be creative in finding funds; begin by analyzing free/reduced data
To fund our iConnect program, we sought internal resources from our Title IV budget and were allocated funding to cover a single high-density population. We then analyzed aggregate data from our free and reduced lunch program to determine the community with the highest level of need. While it was a mobile home park in our case, it could also be an apartment building, a mixed-income housing project, or any type of high-density neighborhood demonstrating need.

Step 4: Start working with leaders in your target community early-on
It’s imperative to bring local community leaders onboard early. For example, we needed approvals to erect an appropriate utility pole at the mobile home park to house our on-site equipment. Beyond approvals, local community leaders became champions for iConnect, building critical enthusiasm on the ground.

Step 5: Leverage your technology partners’ breadth and depth of expertise
One expectation for our technology partners was committing professional resources to our planning and deployment team, which both Layer 3 and Aruba supplied. Their assistance proved vital to devising our ultimate technology strategy as well as the tasks related to getting it done. For example, we experienced approval roadblocks for mounting our equipment on an appropriate communications tower located near one of our elementary schools. Layer 3 obtained the needed approvals within a matter of hours.

Step 6: Piggyback on existing LTE networks for transmitting data to wireless APs
To make iConnect affordable and eliminate various data-transit challenges, our technology partners developed a plan to use LTE cellular signals as the transmission mechanism. This was accomplished by mounting hardened LAN to 4G WAN routers on a tower at one of our elementary schools and on a utility pole at the mobile home park. The selected router was designed for use in vehicles such as police cars and ambulances. For the fast, reliable and cost-effective Wi-Fi at the mobile home park, Aruba conducted a site survey and suggested placing four high-performance 802.11ac outdoor access points strategically around the site.

Step 7: Go solar to power the equipment
As the router and Wi-Fi APs require power, we settled on a solar solution. It included a battery capable of supplying power for three days, 24/7, should there be insufficient solar gain for a daily recharge. The solution also included a cabinet for the LAN to 4G router and a PoE+ injector to power the Wi-Fi APs.

Step 8: Extend secure enterprise access to your remote users
For data security, our selected solutions enabled building a VPN tunnel to our district’s mobility controller through the LAN to 4G router. This permitted us to extend the capabilities of our existing security and access-management solutions to mobile home park users, giving them the same rights as they enjoyed at school and making experiences seamless regardless of role.

Step 9: Apply for an expansion grant in tandem with the inaugural implementation
As plans for the mobile home park project progressed, we also kicked off a grant initiative to similarly equip other underserved communities. Points in our favor included the extensive technology research we conducted and the willingness to use our own funds for the initial iConnect deployment. Just prior to the mobile home park rollout, we were awarded the grant.

Step 10: Sponsor a community celebration
As our team interacted with the mobile home park staff during the course of the initiative, it became clear we needed a mechanism for encouraging usage. Eventually, we decided on a Neighborhood Festival to coincide with completing the installation. In addition to picnic food, we set up multiple tables for demonstrating the many fun learning apps to parents and students.

Making the community feel special and recognized is contributing to strong usage statistics. The Cypress Fairbanks team is looking forward to the start of the 2018-2019 school year to assess the increase in academic achievement as a result of students having increased connectivity at home.

To learn more about our initiative, including more tips for success, check out this presentation: Wireless Connectivity for the Tanner Mobile Home Park Completed in Time for the Neighborhood Celebration.

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