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The real cost of connecting a school to Wi-Fi

Molly Wood Feb 3, 2014
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As more schools move equip all students with a computer, one cost is often overlooked – getting those computers connected to the network grid.

The L.A. Unified school district is planning to spend over $500 million to upgrade servers, pull wire and connect antiquated schools to a data grid – a necessary part of its huge effort to supply 700,000 students and teachers with an iPad.

The price tag is high, says Joe Monaley, a network engineer at Caltech, because costs start far from the building, out on the street.

“A lot of the pipes going through the city or between cities, those have been built, those have been built,” Monaley says. “The problem is, how do you get from the middle of the street to house, and how do you do that for everybody in city and or everybody in the county?”

It’s not as simple as plugging in a modem and router for a home connection: it’s a challenge just to get high-capacity classrooms wired, much less connect whole schools directly to the grid.

L.A. Unified will have to pay to lay cable at the street level or lease it from a utility such as AT&T or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which like many utilities ended up with loads of extra cable after the dot-com bust.

Putting L.A. Unified online is like putting a whole city online. There are more students in the school district than there are people in Seattle or Boston.

The federal government is shelling out a $2.22 billion through its E-Rate program so schools can get more students online.

Often, the districts will pair the federal funds with local issued bond money to pay for the upgrades.

Rosemary Sea, a student at Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South L.A. said as long as the Internet remains spotty, teachers are reluctant to plan iPad lessons.

Last time, she was in the middle of crafting a slideshow for her chemistry teacher when the Wi-Fi dropped out.

“The images wouldn’t come up, but he gave me an extension until my Internet was working,” Sea says.

“The Wi-Fi seems to be shutting down from time to time,” says Robert Sandoval, a freshman at the school. “Since we are all signed into LAUSD [network], they all shut off.”

125,000 iPads are scheduled to arrive at schools as the district continues its push to supply all 680,000 students and teachers with a device.

So construction for wireless upgrades also needs to ramp-up. The district has 486 of its approximately 800 campuses scheduled for modernizations before the end of 2014 with an average sticker price of $736,000.

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