OGDEN — Following unanimous school board approval last week, Ogden School District has become the second school district in Utah to begin working toward establishing a wireless network to provide internet access to all of its students at home.
The move is a continuation of the district’s longtime efforts to make internet access more equitable for its students, who are some of the most economically disadvantaged in the state.
Of its 19 schools, 18 are classified by the U.S. Department of Education as Title I, meaning they have a high concentration of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. According to Utah State Board of Education enrollment data, 75% of students in the district were considered economically disadvantaged at the start of the 2020-21 school year.
“We’ve had transitions to distanced learning, and it really becomes a barrier for a lot of kids,” said Superintendent Rich Nye at a Feb. 18 school board meeting. “And although we provide the immediate hot spots, this really is looking toward long term in that personalized learning space to where students would be able to take more of a hybridized class schedule.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ogden School District was able to provide a laptop or tablet for every one of its students to use. It also purchased more than 1,000 hot spots for families that indicated they did not have access to the internet.
And while technology access became a more pressing issue as students transitioned in and out of remote learning throughout the pandemic, bringing the internet to all of its students has been an ongoing discussion in the district for years.
“I’ve been here three years at Ogden School District, and the second month I was here, we’re in the library down the road and we’re talking about this problem of kids not having internet access, and how do we fix it,” said Casey Bowden, chief technology officer for the district. “Being the new guy on the block, I said, let’s build a mesh network.”
At the time, he said, Nye and Business Administrator Zane Woolstenhulme told him to research the feasibility of the idea. He found that it wasn’t possible.
“COVID hits, I get a phone call — again, same two people,” Bowden said. “‘Hey, remember that idea you had about a mesh network? Flesh it out again. See what’s there.’ That was last February.”
By 2020, technology had progressed to the extent that he saw a potential path for bringing such a network to Ogden. The announcement that Ogden School District will follow through with building its own wireless network comes one month after the Murray School District reported it would be doing the same.
The first tower that will begin providing internet service to students living in a limited area of the district is expected to be completed within eight weeks, according to a press release from the district. It will be built at Heritage Elementary School.
The district plans to build 14 other towers throughout the district within the next year. Of those, 12 will be located on the roofs of school buildings. In partnership with Ogden City and Weber State University, the district hopes to place one on an Ogden City Fire Department building and another on Weber State’s Hurst Center. It is currently working on memorandums of understanding with the entities.
Tower locations were decided on after the Ogden School District contracted with two companies to plan how it could best implement a wireless network, Bowden said. In establishing the system, he added, the district is at an advantage because of its sloping geography.
“It’s not going to be free,” Bowden said as he presented the plan to the board.
According to a document posted on the school board’s agenda, the first tower is expected to cost $25,619 and the entire installation of the network will add up to about $351,000.
The district will also need to purchase more hot spots and SIM cards, Bowden said, and expects to pay additional internet service costs. An initial cost estimate for hot spots is $125,000, as listed on the document.
Despite added costs, the Ogden School District anticipates a wireless network will prove more cost effective. Currently, it pays approximately $20 per month for the unlimited data that comes with each hot spot provided to families. With the mesh network, access will be expanded to everyone for an estimated cost of around $2 per hot spot, per month.
The district plans to rely on the Utah Education and Telehealth Network for internet service. That is a shared service, Bowden noted, and as more districts establish their own wireless networks, the cost of internet will go down.
The Federal Communications Commission, through its E-rate program, currently helps fund broadband at Ogden School District buildings. That funding won’t help cover the wireless network, Bowden said. He and other school officials from throughout the country are working on appeals to the agency to expand the assistance.
The Utah State Legislature is another body Bowden hopes will get on board with districts moving to establish wireless networks for students.
“This is the future. Right now, there are two school districts pushing hard to get this done — others are coming up,” he said. “We need their help, we need support. We’re going to go at it alone if we have to, but we want everyone involved. It’s worth it to the students and families throughout the entire state.”
Although the network will be accessible to all families with students attending Ogden schools, what they can do with that internet is limited. Connections will be filtered to be compliant with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, and all video streaming services will be blocked.
The entire purpose of the network, said Bowden, is to make education in the district more equitable. Once it is established, students will be able to do school work anywhere throughout the district, including on school buses.
“This topic is one of those technologies that will change and has the possibility to change not just Ogden School District, but Ogden City forever,” Bowden said. “Internet has become a utility that we cannot exist without it, and the families that are having to make do without it are at a disadvantage.”