Buffalo schools build Wi-Fi network targeting 'homework gap'

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A school district in Buffalo, New York, has announced a $1.3 million project to bring Wi-Fi connectivity to thousands of students’ homes in two of the city’s most poorly connected neighborhoods.

Buffalo Public Schools, a K-12 district of roughly 70 facilities and 34,000 students in Western New York, announced last month it’s hired the Buffalo-based technology firm HarpData to install a wireless network that gives students access to the school’s educational resources from their homes.

The Buffalo News reported the company will begin this month installing wireless antennas on eight schools  and other nearby buildings to reach the target areas, expecting to complete the project in December or January.

The network is expected to reach some 5,500 students in two of the city’s so-called “digital deserts,” regions with especially low access to high-speed internet — one of the east side of the city and one on the west side. According to CCG consulting, a firm that advises small broadband providers, only 40 percent of the households in those neighborhoods have broadband service, compared to 90 percent coverage in the city’s affluent neighborhoods.

“It’s a disadvantage for a significant percentage of our students and families who aren’t on equal footing with families that have access to broadband connectivity,” William Russo, director of instructional technology for the school district, told the Buffalo News.

The wireless network will piggyback on gigabit connections already available at the facilities and is expected to reach students within a two-mile radius of the wireless access points.

After the network goes live, students in those areas will be able to log on using their school network credentials and gain restricted internet access. The service will limit students to accessing homework, the district’s video library and certain websites whitelisted by the schools for homework research.

According to CCG, the district is also considering a program that would allow students in grades 3-8 to borrow laptops, extending a pilot program that previously allowed laptop rentals to high-school students.

In a separate project, the city launched a free Wi-Fi network along its Jefferson Avenue last year, a common project led by local governments hoping to improve internet access for residents. According to edWeb.net, a network of professional educators, public Wi-Fi projects like these are a critical step for eliminating the gap between students with after-school access to internet and those without.

Students without internet access at home may also soon get some assistance from a federal program that would extend subsidies previously reserved for educational institutions to the homes of students. The Government Accountability Office urged the Federal Communications in Commission in July to consider broadening the reach of its E-Rate program to fund wireless service at students’ homes.

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