September 24, 2020
A small Texas city is using CBRS unlicensed spectrum to deliver a free broadband service to its community, including its K-12 students that desperately needed Internet connectivity when their school district decided to institute remote learning in August.
McAllen, Texas, sits near the Mexico border and more than 25% of its residents live below the poverty line. The city, which has approximately 140,000 residents, was significantly impacted by COVID-19 with more than 2.5% of the population infected with the virus. Because of this, the school district decided to institute remote learning for at least the first eight weeks of the school year. While each student received a wireless device, in-home broadband connectivity was still a problem for many of them.
Frontera Consulting, a boutique consulting company based in McAllen, decided to use its expertise to help the community and reached out to city officials to figure out how to bring Wi-Fi to residents who couldn't afford any other type of broadband service. According to Drew Lentz, co-founder of Frontera, the company was accustomed to working with municipalities and small local governments to figure out how to deploy wireless connectivity. But what was different about this project was the short time frame they had to do it. "I've built wireless ISPs. That part of the project wasn't alien to me," Lentz said. "What was different was the 60-day timeline."
The reason for the aggressive timeline was that the city wanted the broadband up and running when school started in late August so its students could participate in remote learning. McAllen is part of Texas' Hidalgo county, which Lentz said has one of the lowest broadband adoption rates of any county in the US. Although 99% of the county has access to a broadband service, only about 37% of the residents actually subscribe to it. "A lot of people just can't afford it," Lentz said.
Hidalgo county was awarded a grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and it used a portion of that funding to pay for the McAllen project. Frontera deployed 24 point-to-multipoint basestations from Cambium Networks and more than 1,000 outdoor Wi-Fi access points. The network uses CBRS spectrum in the unlicensed GAA band and Federated Wireless provides the spectrum controller services to make sure there is no interference.
Lentz said that McAllen decided to use CBRS spectrum because there are already a number of wireless ISPs in the area and the 5GHz unlicensed band was congested.
According to Kurt Schaubach, CTO of Federated Wireless, the project appealed to Federated because it believes it will serve as a template for other school districts. "This is the first project of its kind that came to full deployment. We have been talking to a number of school districts about doing the same thing," he said.
He added that this CBRS network serves as a private network for McAllen, which means it can provide its own security and firewall to prevent its students' data from being at risk like it would be if they were connecting over open public hotspots.
And it isn't just rural towns or smaller cities that are interested in this type of network. Schaubach said Federated Wireless is getting inquiries from school districts in urban areas as well. "Affordability is the issue," Schaubach said. "School districts can't pay for a subscription service and they need a lower cost alternative."
McAllen officials approved the use of utility poles for the access points, but there were a few caveats: first, the only poles Frontera could use were wooden poles, not aluminum poles that can be found in some of the newer neighborhoods; and second, they couldn't deploy access points on any pole that was already occupied by another communications provider.
Lentz said that those restrictions weren't a problem because the wooden poles tended to be in the older neighborhoods on the south side of the city, which is where many of residents that were most in need of broadband access resided. In addition, the wooden utility poles were about 600 feet apart, which was the perfect distance for deploying the access points.
Frontera hired about 15 people to help build the network and those employees were all from McAllen. Lentz said it was important for Frontera to hire local, not only to support the community, but also to make sure that the network would be sustainable because there would be people in town who knew how it worked. "We want this to have longevity," he said.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.
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