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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Nashua School District seeks to close ‘WiFi’ gap’

NASHUA – More Nashua students will soon have increased wireless Internet access.

The Board of Education, following recommendations from its Finance Committee, has allocated $95,000 to improve wireless access at both public high schools. The money comes from fiscal 2014 leftovers. ...

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NASHUA – More Nashua students will soon have increased wireless Internet access.

The Board of Education, following recommendations from its Finance Committee, has allocated $95,000 to improve wireless access at both public high schools. The money comes from fiscal 2014 leftovers.

The improvements won’t completely meet wireless demands, but will get the schools closer, Superintendent Mark Conrad said.

“We were outfitted with wireless access 10 years ago, but demands for greater speed have increased, particularly with video,” Conrad said. “That money will take every wireless point and put a new access point in place.”

The next step would be to create a “heat map” to reveal the spots in the building where wireless isn’t available, he said.

“Our benchmark is the ability to run a classroom of laptop computers,” Conrad said. “We’re looking at access for an entire class. That will give us, over time, the ability to include technology in classrooms.”

Across the state and country, Wi-Fi availability for students and community members could use improvement. The Federal Communications Commission is addressing what it calls the “Wi-Fi gap” by trying to modernize its E-Rate program, a two-decade-old initiative to connect U.S. schools and libraries to affordable telecommunications services.

The E-Rate Modernization Proposal, championed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would increase wireless access over the next five years. The FCC will vote on Wheeler’s proposal on Friday.

The FCC, along with the program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Co., are on track to free up $2 billion to back the modernization.

“Nationwide, the plan is expected to expand Wi-Fi to nearly 44 million students by 2019, a nearly 450 percent increase,” according to a statement released Tuesday by FCC press secretary Kim Hart.

In New Hampshire, the FCC estimates the initiative would set up Wi-Fi at 235 libraries and 750 schools, connecting a total of 213,843 students.

The FCC statement said the increased connection could make it easier for students in rural schools to remotely enroll in courses their school doesn’t offer, such as accessing a broader variety of AP courses.

Steve Kossakoski, CEO of New Hampshire’s online charter school the Virtual Learning Academy, said the proposal could bode well for its enrollment: “It’s possible that the FCC initiative could increase participation.”

Kossakoski said schools and libraries should have Wi-Fi access.

“Wireless connectivity, in my opinion, should be the standard in schools and libraries as it provides access to a wide variety of devices and does not restrict users to a lab setting,” he said. “The proposed changes to E-Rate funding will be very helpful to schools for upgrading systems to current standards and for expanding wireless access to all classrooms.

“Many or most schools in New Hampshire have wireless connectivity, but my guess is that many do not have schoolwide wireless systems and that a majority of schools do not have the funds to upgrade to the latest wireless technology standards.”

Indeed, most schools and libraries lack “robust” Wi-Fi. Only 43 percent of public school districts confirm they can support a device per student deployment, according to the FCC using data from a 2013 survey of district technology leaders led by the Consortium for School Networking.

The E-Rate Modernization Proposal has three goals.

To close the Wi-Fi gap, granting high-speed access to all classrooms and libraries by 2019.

To make the program rules more fair by ensuring funds to most schools and libraries versus a chosen few.

To maximize existing funds. This would fund the proposal’s execution beyond the initial $2 billion allocation.

For Nashua North and South, improving the wireless access points is a step as the district’s effort to modernize continues. Calculating the scope of funding a wireless classroom will have to wait until then.

“We won’t know how much more money we need until we update our current access points,” Conrad said.