Strengthening Wi-Fi for schools should be top priority

Bill Maguire

All across America the country, children are flooding out of schools into the summer sun, looking forward to a well-earned break.

But at many of those schools themselves, a hard summer’s work is just beginning, as administrators scramble to stay ahead of the technology curve and wire their buildings, install routers and bring the power of the Internet to our students.

Kids may be singing “no more pencils, no more books,” but schools are working overtime to bring in Wi-Fi.

At this point the value of Internet access to education at all levels and the need to do more to bring sufficiently high-speed Internet to our students are both beyond debate. As President Barack Obama said last fall, “right now, fewer than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet in their classrooms — less than half. That's not good, since we invented the Internet… It means that in most American schools, teachers cannot use the cutting-edge software and programs that are available today. They literally don’t have the bandwidth.”

And that connectivity means more than just bringing an Internet connection to the classroom. Just as our homes and offices have given over to the mobile revolution, with over two-thirds of all Internet traffic expected to move over Wi-Fi by 2018 according to Cisco, so must our schools. Yet research I completed last year raises daunting questions about the availability and quality of the Wi-Fi service that our schools will need, especially as they transition to gigabyte networks needed for “one student/one device” and “bring your own device” policies and high bandwidth applications like real time distance learning and shared video collaboration.

While much work has been done bringing high-speed connections to the doorsteps of our schools, many buildings lack “inside” infrastructure to deliver that connectivity all the way to the students themselves. This critical “last mile” (or more often, “last 30 feet”) can be bridged a number of ways but most experts I have interviewed believe Wi-Fi offers one of the most cost-effective and flexible avenues.

But these experts also warn of a “spectrum crunch,” as more and more in-school users come online to share scarce channels and frequencies. In congested network environments, network delays, lost packets, buffering, and other symptoms of network degradation can occur. Anyone who has ever tried to post a picture from a concert, ballgame, or any crowded public network knows how quick they are to slow down or even lock up. That’s an inconvenience for ballpark selfies, but unacceptable in our schools.

Abundant, available unlicensed spectrum is needed to help K-12 schools address network congestion in the classrooms of the future. Policymakers should make sure our schools have the bandwidth they need, and that it is broadly spread across all communities so that we don’t create a new digital divide in our schools as we are working to close the one that has plagued our homes for too long.

One immediate step is to free up more unlicensed spectrum. Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have a bipartisan bill in Congress that would open up a few new areas of unlicensed spectrum to Wi-Fi, easing the bandwidth crunch and spurring innovation.

It is also critical that we manage existing spectrum in a manner that ensures the Wi-Fi networks that will help our schools meet their digital promise remain strong and stable. The FCC is wisely investigating how new technologies could impact existing Wi-Fi networks. Some engineers are concerned that new cell phone systems referred to as “LTE-U” could inadvertently crowd out or congest Wi-Fi networks, for example. As we work to foster new innovations and bring valuable new technologies like this online, it is vital that we do so in a responsible manner that also strengthens and preserves existing uses of spectrum like Wi-Fi.

Later this year, students around the country will return to school, and many of them will find powerful new networks including high speed Wi-Fi that puts the Internet at every desk. But if we want to give every student that kind of opportunity, we must work to bolster our Wi-Fi systems starting now.

Bill Maguire served as chief of staff for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from 2009 to 2012.