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Private Networks

California school district builds its own LTE network for online learning

A school district in Central California built a private wireless LTE network in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band with equipment from Motorola Solutions to broadcast Internet connections to students in around 100 homes.

The district's goal, of course, is to make sure those students can get online if the ongoing pandemic forces students to learn from home during the upcoming school semester.

But it also highlights both the value of Internet connections as well as the wide variety of applications for private wireless LTE networks.

The private wireless deployment by the Patterson Unified School District in Patterson, California, is small. The district covers close to a dozen elementary, middle and high schools supporting almost 6,000 students, so a network covering 100 homes is less than 2% of the student population. But vendor Motorola Solutions notes that "the system can support many more students and provide them sufficient broadband coverage to meet their educational and distance learning needs."

The details of the district's deployment remain relatively vague, however. Motorola Solutions declined to comment on questions about how many basestations are involved in the effort and the financial value of the deployment. The company said the network is a permanent installation, can be expanded as necessary, and that the district will give modems to students in range of the network so they can get online.

Like most schools around the country, the Patterson Unified School District is struggling with how to bring students into schools safely. The district has delayed the start of school until September, likely in the hope that state and federal government officials will somehow manage to stop the spread of the virus.

Thus, the district's private wireless LTE network in the CBRS spectrum is a failsafe in the event schooling goes online.

Of course, the educators in Patterson aren't the only ones working to connect students via wireless technologies if school stays online due to COVID-19. For example, Verizon inked a deal with the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff to offer discounted rates for Internet service to 150,000 students in the state. And the Arkansas Department of Education said it will purchase $10 million worth of hotspots from AT&T and T-Mobile for distance learning. Money for the purchases comes from the US government's CARES Act.

Interestingly, the educators in Patterson aren't' the only ones who have constructed their own wireless network. Northern Michigan University also operates an LTE network covering thousands of square miles in the state's rural Upper Peninsula, which it uses to beam Internet connections to 15,000 families and students.

A growing number of policymakers in the US have pointed to the pandemic as another driver for universal broadband in the US.

Others looking at private wireless networks include federal facilities like the Pantex plant, enterprises like UPS and utilities like Ameren.

The proliferation of private networks is being aided by a few factors, including the falling prices around LTE network equipment as well as the growing availability of spectrum. The FCC just last year opened up the CBRS spectrum band to unlicensed commercial uses, and is currently in the process of auctioning a portion of the band for licensed uses. Officials from Motorola Solutions confirmed that the Patterson school district doesn't plan to purchase the CBRS license for its area.

Other educators may have a different idea, though. For example, the Dallas Independent School District, Duke University and the University of Kentucky are among the entities that have registered interest in purchasing CBRS spectrum licenses.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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