The Wi-Fi on the bus goes…click, click, click!

Posted in Broadband

Photo courtesy of Osakis Review

For Milaca students who ride the bus, “hitting the highway” now has a dual meaning. As the wheels on the bus go round-and-round on the highway pavement, tech wheels are turning too as they connect to the information highway.

Five, ten, fifteen years ago, if you attempted to do homework on the bus it would most likely come out looking like one long EKG line, mimicking all the bumps and dips in the road. Now, rural schools like Milaca are hooking up buses with Wi-Fi so students can make the most of the lengthy travels to and from school, which can be up to 36 miles round trip.

For Milaca Public Schools Technology Coordinator Steve Bistrup, the idea to connect buses to the Internet followed naturally after the school voted to offer tablet devices to move more instruction and homework online.

“When we moved forward with the 1-to-1 iPad initiative in 2012, I had to look at what was needed to make it a success,” said Bistrup. “An obvious starting point was our community’s broadband infrastructure. We needed to make sure students had the connectivity to do what we were asking of them.”

Steve started looking into the disparity between rural and “city” kids, meaning those that live in the town of Milaca.

“Some students, like my daughter, can ride the bus up to two hours per day. Once they’re home, it’s hit or miss whether or not they have Internet access. It’s a huge disadvantage both in terms of time and efficiency,” he said.

Extending the classroom to school buses through the power of the Internet seemed like a natural step to address the issue of access.

To kick-start the project, Steve needed to pull together a group of partners, including the school administration, the bus company contracted through the school, and an Internet provider.

The community got behind the project and with some federal funding through the E-Rate program* (the universal service support program to help schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband) and grant funding from Blandin Foundation, the connections started firing.

Once the switch was flipped, Bistrup started up a topsy-turvy learning curve.

“The bills were astronomical at first,” said Bistrup. “We learned real fast that we had to limit certain types of access.”

Access had to be limited not only to preserve data but to also shape content. That way parents were reassured their children only had access to school-sanctioned sites.

Other unforeseen benefits occurred as a result of the Wi-Fi, like fewer discipline issues on buses.

“Bus drivers love it. Students are quieter and cause fewer distractions,” said Bistrup.

Right now eight our of 27 buses have Wi-Fi and there are hopes to add more.

“We see the value and we would love to add more buses, but it’s a dollars and cents kind of challenge,” says Bistrup.

At $100 per access point per month, the Wi-Fi equipped buses do not come cheap.

“I’m passionate about our rural kids getting the same opportunities as those in bigger schools,” says Bistrup. “Broadband isn’t as pervasive as electricity – yet. But it is just as vital to achieving a 21st century education.”

* With recent changes in the E-rate program, funds are no longer available for Wi-Fi on buses.