A few times a week, Daphne MacDougall and her three kids pile into the car and head for the Holly Grove Christian Church, about two miles from their home in southeast Louisa County, Virginia.
The family sits in the gravel parking lot, flanked by fields, a few houses and patches of trees, and logs onto the internet. The signal comes from a trailer cart parked at the edge of the lot, which is equipped with a cellular hotspot running on solar power.
For MacDougall’s family, the hotspot provides a reprieve from the satellite internet service they have at home, which can be spotty even for small tasks like checking email — and forget about streaming videos or watching Netflix.
“It works sometimes. It’s not extremely reliable — like, we can’t count on it,” MacDougall said of her home internet service. “And especially since the pandemic, in March, when people started working and schooling from home, the service is way overloaded.”
In this rural part of the state nestled between Richmond, Charlottesville and Fredericksburg, access to reliable broadband internet is out of reach for many. So when the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to shut their doors and shift to remote learning in March, officials in the Louisa County Public Schools Division deployed 22 solar-powered hotspot units throughout the county as part of its Wireless on Wheels initiative.
An Expanding Fleet for Fall
This fall, as Louisa County schools offer both blended and all-virtual learning models, students in the division’s building trades and technology program have been hard at work constructing 10 more to add to the fleet.
The division first explored using school buses as mobile hotspots, according to Superintendent Doug Straley, but it proved difficult to find a consistent power source in the areas where they’d be parked. So Technology Director David Childress worked with another staff member to design plans for solar-powered units instead.
“Basically the units are designed so that even if you don’t have sunshine, if the week is nothing but rain, those units will still continue to function 24 hours a day without any issue at all,” Childress said.
Each Wireless on Wheels unit costs about $3,000 to construct, Childress said, with the largest portion of that expense coming from the solar panels themselves and the trailer carts they’re housed in. They’re built with materials available at most hardware stores, and each hotspot can support about five devices at one time in a 200-foot radius.
The amount of usage varies from day to day and location to location, but Childress said that on a given day, the division will typically see more than 100 devices connecting to any one hotspot. Straley noted that the units have become a resource not just for the schools, but for the community at large, as reliable access to high-speed internet is a challenge that extends beyond the schoolhouse.
He said roughly 40% of the division’s more than 5,000 students lack reliable internet access.
“One of the things we wanted to be able to do if we could was leave it open to the community and not just have the filters where only our devices could get on it,” Straley said. “Because we have many families or many parents that are telecommuting where they may not have internet access in their homes.”
No One-Size-Fits All, But Filling a Broadband Void
According to Kyle Rosner, a broadband policy specialist for the Office of Governor Ralph S. Northam, about 600,000 Virginians lacked broadband access as of 2018. The state has set a goal to achieve universal broadband by 2028, and has connected more than 100,000 people through state programs in the past few years, he said.
Rosner said the state has been keeping an eye on some of the innovations schools have come up with to help bridge the gap during the public health crisis. In the short-term, Rosner said responses like Louisa County’s are making a difference, but he noted that there’s “no substitute” for true broadband infrastructure.
“Even before Covid, there’s not a one-size-fits-all for broadband, and that’s true for short-term solutions as well,” Rosner said. “So in some localities, hotspots might not be feasible because they don’t have much cell coverage.”
To address this concern, Childress said the school division has one satellite-based hotspot, which doesn’t require cellular service to function. However, the monthly cost of operating a satellite-based unit is slightly higher than a cellular-based one, he said.
Sarah Amick, a government teacher at Louisa County High School and vice president-elect of the Louisa County Education Association, said she has used the hotspots on a few occasions. She said that though the connection wasn’t lightning fast, it was perfect for downloading documents to view at home later.
MacDougall’s oldest child, who is a senior this year, used the technology over the summer to start working on his college applications. She said she’s heard some concerns from other parents about the service slowing down when too many people try to connect, but so far that hasn’t been an issue for her family.
“Everyone I talk to around here jokes, can they just put one in my yard?” MacDougall said, laughing. “We are really, really grateful to the school system for stepping up and helping us close this loop.”
Straley and Childress said they’ve received inquiries from other schools in Virginia, as well as districts in other states, about implementing this type of program. And to make it easier for others to use the same technology, the school division has created a website where anyone can access the designs, parts list and assembly instructions for the Wireless on Wheels units.
“We can’t equip every home with internet, but we’re equipping every student with the opportunity to have access to internet,” Straley said. “And I think that’s what we’re really excited about. We’re able to fill a void in a rural community.”
This story was produced with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network.