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Why the future of remote learning depends on fixed wireless broadband

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Song_about_summer)

The same study revealed that an additional 60,000 students stated they do not have home internet access whatsoever, meaning a large proportion of students are completely unable to learn online.

Businesses and schools around the world could never have forecast the extreme events of 2020. Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on every sector, but the public sector has been hit particularly hard, with many institutions forced to close their doors to help stop the infection in its tracks. For students, this meant an increased consumption of their home internet bandwidth as they attempted to continue their studies despite the tremendous disruption. 

But limited internet access is not confined to students alone. Teachers and lecturers are also hindered by inadequate internet connections when they cannot connect to the internet to conduct effective classes for their pupils. This is most noticeable when the real-time streaming of lessons and seminars is required. Causes of the situation differ from the economic to the absence of viable networks, for example, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS), Very High-Speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL) and Fixed Wireless Broadband, serving the location of the specific household. How to tackle this challenge rapidly and sustainably is the next step.

Covid-19 also emphasised the huge volume of work that must be accomplished to reduce the digital divide internationally. Focusing on the United Kingdom, this disparity affects students and teachers residing in underserved regions who are yet to have satisfactory broadband installed. A 2018 study by the Office for National Statistics revealed that in the UK, 12 percent of students between the ages of 11 and 18 said they had no internet access from a tablet or a computer. This equates to a staggering 700,000 students across the country still unable to access online learning services and platforms.

Unrealistic goals

The UK Government had previously promised to provide fibre broadband to every home in the country, but in his 2020 Spending Review, The Chancellor reduced this to a smaller target of 85 percent. Put simply, this investment and the speed at which roll-out is happening is not good enough. Their next hurdle will be to make connectivity both cheaper and accessible in more isolated areas of the country. However, there is an alternative solution. If schools work in partnership with Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP), and Managed Service Providers (MSP), these technology providers can deliver viable solutions, namely Outdoor Wi-Fi Access and/or Fixed Wireless Access for residential addresses that are affected.

Large playgrounds and car parks are commonplace in a majority of schools’ grounds. These areas are perfect for the installation of outdoor Wi-Fi access points and offering “drive-up” intranet access for remote home-learners. Other countries are already testing this solution which allows students to access learning materials while simultaneously preserving social distancing. Outdoor Wi-Fi can also be extended to reach people’s homes in some scenarios.

While the Drive-In Wi-Fi is the fastest route to open access to the broadest audience, it relies on the capability to drive to the local schools, which is not always sustainable or feasible, nor is it likely viable for real-time instruction. Bringing broadband access right to the student’s home using fixed wireless broadband is the more sustainable solution.

All of the Wi-Fi access points can be linked by wireless point-to-point (PTP) links or point-to-multipoint (PMP) wide-area networks situated on the school’s roof and wired into the school’s LAN. Light stanchions or even solar power can provide the electricity to the outdoor Wi-Fi APs. Where light stanchions are not available, the outdoor Wi-Fi APs can be fitted to temporary tripods. Some schools have even installed them on top of school buses. The benefit of expanding the school’s LAN includes access control to the student’s credentials and entry to approved sites and resources can be limited if required.

The seriousness of the digital divide

Given that Primary and Secondary schools in urban and rural locations typically serve local neighbourhoods, they are perfect locations for master Wi-Fi sites. But the same approach can be taken with other public buildings like libraries, government administration buildings and public parks. To achieve fixed wireless broadband, the only infrastructure that is necessary is a two- to three-meter, non-penetrating roof mount on the roof of the building, and a 3 GHz or 5 GHz point-to-multipoint wide-area network. With the implementation of this infrastructure, thousands of underserved students will finally have access to reliable high-speed internet. Furthermore, hundreds of homes will have reasonably priced, high-capacity broadband that means lack of access to their learning materials will no longer be an issue.

Understandably, the experience and knowledge of how to coordinate, build and commission a wireless network are unlikely to be in the remit of a school worker. Therefore, to realise the aforementioned approach, public-private partnerships with local WISPs will be necessary. Schools and local authorities will need to grant them access to the facilities and will be responsible for organising the students who need the internet and to act as the point of presence. The role of the WISP will be to deliver and supervise the infrastructure and ensure the equipment is properly installed.

Another benefit of the WISP’s involvement is that their existing network coverage could also extend beyond that achievable from the school district’s network. In this scenario, the school district and the WISP could coordinate a VLAN to allow secure bridging between the school districts LAN and the WISP’s network.

The experiences of the last year have merely highlighted the seriousness of the digital divide and sadly, the poorest have been hit the hardest. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If Wi-Fi and fixed wireless technologies can be combined, quickly deployable and affordable broadband for underserved communities will be achievable. Local authorities must look to institutions that have already deployed these pioneering solutions and learn from their projects to better serve their local community. Children are the foundation of our future society, and it is in the country’s best interest to ensure they can access education, no matter where or how they have to study.

Nigel King, CTO, Cambium Networks

Nigel King’s career in wireless technology spans more than 40 years, and has included leading development teams for companies such as Racal, Standard Telephones and Cables and Nortel Networks. Immediately before becoming part of Cambium Networks’ executive team, he was a distinguished member of the technical staff at Motorola Solutions.