If all goes as planned, a group of students in Marion County will in February have access to high-speed internet at home through a private network that supports e-learning.
The Indianapolis eLearning Fund, a coalition of education, philanthropic and business leaders, announced Tuesday the $1.7 million pilot program which intends to provide internet access to lower-income families.
The program intends to connect 1,500 homes with students from six public schools.
“Indianapolis is on the cutting edge of cities working to better connect students with the technology they need to thrive in an eLearning era, and we’re hopeful this pilot will make broader connectivity possible,” said Paul Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of Energy Systems Network.
The organization says one out of every four students in Marion County, which is about 38,000 students, lack internet access at home.
“This is problematic. Because even under the best of circumstances, elearning makes it difficult for students to advance academically,” said Claire Fiddian-Green, president and chief executive officer of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
Citing a study, Fiddian-Green says even if students return to school full time in person in January 2021, they could lose anywhere from three to 11 months of learning if they receive average to low-quality instruction.
“These losses are compounded by lack of internet access,” said Fiddian-Green.
Two nonprofits, Energy Systems Network and Indiana 5G Zone, will implement the pilot, using the emerging technology of Citizens Broadband Radio Service.
CBRS is a frequency used sparingly by the U.S. government. The Federal Communications Commission allows the spectrum to be used by private companies for specific wireless broadband, such as educational purposes.
“CBRS has been used in the past by rural Internet Service Providers to enhance broadband connectivity and now it’s being considered by communities across the country for similar e-learning pilots,” said Mitchell.
Students who qualify for the program will receive a mobile hotspot that will connect with the CBRS frequency. The organization says the students live within two miles of the six pilot schools selected. The schools will receive an antenna to distribute the signal.
Indianapolis Public Schools distributed 6,000 hotspots at the beginning of the school year to help students with remote learning. Those devices connect to commercial carriers. The ability to connect to a network came out of the school corporation’s budget.
“While we’re very happy and grateful to be able to provide the access to that service, the reality is those dollars could be spent deepening the base of teaching in the remote learning environment and other ways we could support our students and families,” said IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.
The network will be piloted at six schools that were chosen based on geographic distribution and ability to optimize signal coverage.
This is the list of six schools that will take part in the pilot program:
- George Washington High School – Indianapolis Public Schools
- Harrison Hill Elementary School – Lawrence Township
- Southport Elementary School – Perry Township
- Winchester Village Elementary School – Perry Township
- Riverside High School
- Vision Academy.
If the pilot proves successful, organizers say the Marion County Dedicated Network Pilot could be scaled up to serve public school students countywide as soon as early 2022.
The city of Indianapolis is providing $730,000 in federal CARES Act funding to support the program. The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation contributed $500,000, and Lilly Endowment Inc. contributed $330,000, with the remaining $100,000 coming from the Indiana 5G Zone.
IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said the need for internet access by IPS students will last long after the pandemic.
ESN President & CEO Paul Mitchell explained how the network will work in the pilot program.