As students move back into distance learning, internet access is becoming more essential than ever to keep up with assignments and make contact with teachers. Le Sueur County and local school districts have invested CARES Act dollars into WiFi hotspots, wireless towers and fiber networks, but some students are still not being reached.
The problem? For some students, the new WiFi hotspots at schools aren’t working. Le Sueur County CARES Act coordinator Barbara Droher-Kline told the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 17 that she knew of seven families in Le Center who couldn’t use the school WiFi.
“This is what the schools are seeing; they buy hotspots, but they don’t work,” said Droher-Kline.
Rather than install more WiFi hotspots at schools, Droher-Kline is searching for a way to bring WiFi directly to students’ homes. The coordinator said she is negotiating a proposal to offer WiFi hotspots at reduced monthly rates for low-income families.
To implement this, the county would work with GIS staff, school districts and the Minnesota Valley Action Council (MVAC) to map out and pre-select students and families for reduced rates. Students selected would need to be on a free or reduced lunch program or referred by MVAC and unable to use available WiFi hotspots.
But one of the greatest obstacles to this proposal is pricing. WiFi hotspot services for schools and libraries are often subsidized through the federal e-rates program, which provides between 20-90% on internet service to ensure schools and libraries have affordable internet access.
But up until now, projects are only eligible for an e-rate discount if they are on school and library grounds. And as more and more students are learning from home, less and less are benefitting from the on-site discounts to schools. Educators have since petitioned the FCC to re-evaluate its e-rate policy.
“They’re working on it right now, because of the way the dynamics have changed in the districts, to extend it not only to support of the school and school locations, but also support of WiFi hotspots and extend that to the student at home,” said Steve Herman of NetWave Broadband.
With e-rate eligibility still uncertain, Droher-Kline is still in the process of negotiating potential discounts with area providers, like NetWave Broadband and MetroNet, and is looking to set aside funds to lower monthly charges to low-income families until e-rate eligibility expands.
“How do we negotiate lower rates for these next six months for these families that are getting hotspots and they can’t use them?” said Droher-Kline. “It’s a big project and we’re doing it in a short amount of time.”
Wireless towers stalled
As the December deadline for CARES Act expenditures approaches, the Board of Commissioners heard a proposal for two Netwave Broadband wireless towers in Elysian and Madison Lake. The plan called for $376,000 to fund install towers in Elysian and Madison Lake to expand the scope of wireless internet to the south of the county and backhauls on existing towers in Waterville and Cleveland to provide security to Netwave Broadband’s wireless network.
“What we’re doing is protecting the towers to build additional redundancy in the network,” said Herman. “The Waterville tower, which is a MNDOT location, where we were told there was fiber in the base, there’s no fiber in that location. So we need another link to protect that tower and we’re looking at redundancy to basically make sure it’s a carrier grade network rather than a community network. So all those locations are protected with two different feeds. If a link goes down for whatever reason, the network doesn’t go down.”
However, Droher-Kline recommended that the county not go through with the proposal. In Madison Lake, Le Sueur County hoped to partner with Blue Earth County, where the city is located, but officials there said it was too late for them to put funds toward the project.
“They weren’t too opposed to it, but were too late to commit to it at this time,” said Droher-Kline. “They were very intrigued by it, but said the timing wasn’t right for them to buy in on it.”
In Elysian, the radius of the proposed tower would have covered more area in Waseca County south of the city, than within the county.
“It would be about $300,000 and the benefits are significant to the other two counties, so it’s not going to be something we are proposing at this point,” said Droher-Kline. “But we’re still looking at other options for that area.”
“We’re still vetting to see if there is another path out there potentially,” Herman added. “Maybe we build another tower out there.”