Education

School buses to carry Wi-Fi hotspots to rural, underserved students

Accessing remote learning opportunities will become easier for students in communities underserved by high-speed internet connections, thanks to donations of Wi-Fi hotspots from AT&T, Google and Duke Energy Foundation.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the gifts in a news release Wednesday.

The donations will allow as many as 280 additional school buses to be equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots.

The buses will travel to underserved areas, park at sites such as school nutrition meal distribution centers or grocery stores so students can connect to the internet to turn in assignments, download materials or connect with teachers.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The drive-up Wi-Fi access will also allow residents to connect to healthcare providers, apply for unemployment or access other critical information and services.

AT&T and Google are providing up to 100 Wi-Fi hotspots each and the Duke Energy Foundation is providing up to 80. The first 156 devices are expected to be delivered starting today to communities in 29 counties across the state.

“In many communities, school buses are already delivering meals to students and their families. Now they’re delivering Wi-Fi for online learning,” Cooper said.

Cooper asked the N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) to work with the North Carolina Business Committee on Education (NCBCE) and Hometown Strong, internet providers and other corporate partners to help more students who lack home internet access get connected during this time, including through installing Wi-Fi technology on more school buses.

The lack of high-speed internet connections for rural students learning from home since mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak have been a much-discussed topic.

State officials estimate that more than 300,000 students across the state, many of them in rural communities, lack the internet connections and electronic devices needed to access remote learning opportunities.

Policy Watch reported last month that roughly 95% of households in North Carolina have access to broadband internet, which is slightly better than the national average of 93.5%. Still, large swaths of rural North Carolina do not have access, including some of the state’s high poverty areas.

School districts in rural parts of North Carolina will be among the first to receive the new Wi-Fi hotspots.

Schools in Avery, Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Caswell, Chowan, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Franklin, Gaston, Gates, Halifax, Harnett, Hertford, Johnston, Martin, Montgomery, Northampton, Perquimans, Person, Randolph (includes Asheboro City Schools), Robeson, Sampson (includes Clinton City Schools), Scotland, Tyrrell, Vance, Wayne, Warren and Yadkin counties will receive the first 156 Wi-Fi hotspots.

“This partnership with AT&T, Google and the Duke Energy Foundation will allow more access for some of our most underserved counties,” said State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Eric Davis. ‘The board’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the digital divide to allow the same access for each and every child. These Wi-Fi hotspots are a start to getting these counties the resources they need to serve students despite their location.”

A team from the NCDIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, Hometown Strong and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) began delivering hotspots late Tuesday.

Data from the Federal Communication Commission and NCDPI’s school survey was used to identify counties with the most households unserved and underserved by high-speed internet.

NCDIT cross-referenced that information with counties using school buses to deliver meals to students, as well as information about cellular coverage, to determine where school bus Wi-Fi hotspots can be most useful. Some counties are already using school buses to provide internet access.

The SBE received an update on the new Wi-Fi hotspots during its monthly meeting Wednesday.

To learn more about the free Wi-Fi spots, visit:  www.ncbroadband.gov/covid19.

The webpage also includes a map of other public Wi-Fi drive-up locations, as well as a listing of free or low-cost options for internet service during the pandemic. The list is updated as new offers and locations are added.  

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