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Welcome to the 3rd in our series of IoT Roundtables – this time focusing on how IoT is helping schools alleviate disparities in virtual learning. We’ve all watched around the world as COVID-19 has put a spotlight on a challenge that has been around for a long time – a significant “Digital Divide” in education where many communities, families, and students don’t have access to the Internet.

A few dismaying facts:

Here at Cisco, we are committed to powering an inclusive future for all and connecting the unconnected so that students can learn – and teachers can teach – anywhere, anytime, and on any device. I’ve invited Barbara Walker, Cisco Account Manager, and Andrea Azzoni, Cisco IoT Product Marketing Manager, to this Roundtable to explore how Cisco IoT is helping to close the Digital Divide and highlight how one school district in Texas is leading the way for their students.

 


Vikas Butaney; Barbara Walker; Andrea Azzoni

VIKAS:  Andrea – Can you set the stage for our readers? Tell us about the challenges for school districts to close the Digital Divide.

ANDREA: At the heart of it, many households in at-risk communities have unreliable, low bandwidth connections or simply don’t have an internet connection at all. Public carrier services might not be readily available or affordable in the at-risk communities, regardless of whether it’s rural or urban. So, getting enough bandwidth for virtual school can be a challenge. Even spotty coverage can have a negative impact on student engagement and success. And often when there is connectivity available, there is the practical limitation of affordability for households that are now under more financial stress with COVID-19.

To deliver quality education content virtually, schools now have an added challenge in front of them – remote access.

VIKAS:  Barbara – Does this ring true for the Canutillo Independent School District in TX where you’ve been working with them to close that divide?

BARBARA: It sure does. The Canutillo Independent School District (ISD) in El Paso, Texas faced this same technology disparity that was preventing their students from continuing their learning remotely. The school district has 10 schools serving more than 6,000 students. Located near the Mexico-United States border, many students are first-generation Americans eager to learn so that they can be the first in their family to graduate from high school and college. But a high percentage of the households in their district lacked access to internet, creating a monumental challenge for distance learning.

VIKAS: Barbara – and that’s when they called Cisco?

BARBARA: Yes. In 2007 El Paso launched a community wireless project called Digital El Paso. The goal was to achieve digital inclusion, sustain economic development, and enhance government and public services. Based on this success, Canutillo ISD recognized Cisco as the company to help them address their digital divide. The district identified pockets of underserved, vulnerable populations to first focus on. They knew they needed to take quick action to ensure that students had access for remote learning. And they wanted to tap into funds available from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) federal funding.

So, they launched an innovative project called “Canutillo Connect.” This initiative extends a secure, private wireless network across the district to allow students free internet access from their home to conduct their remote learning, delivering:

  • A pervasive Wi-Fi network that will serve the district’s vulnerable populations, starting with a proof of concept
  • Cisco built-in security
  • Greater bandwidth parity
  • Network usage parameters, managed by the school
  • Free access for all households

This project is a shining example of how Canutillo Connect is bridging the digital divide for the Canutillo community and leading the way for other school districts to emulate.

VIKAS: Andrea – What does it take to close this Digital Divide? What’s inside this wireless network?

ANDREA: It’s a powerful combination of Cisco Industrial Ethernet switches, Cisco Fluidmesh and Meraki. Let me break what we did down into three main steps:

  1. Leverage the existing fiber backbone: The local schools had a fiber network that we could tap into as the source for our connectivity. Laying new fiber was cost prohibitive, long term and not an option they could consider. So, we used Cisco Catalyst Industrial Ethernet Switches deployed at the light pole, which can withstand this Texas heat and also tap into the fiber network.
  2. Create a wireless network: Then across the community, we leveraged existing public poles and towers to create a new WiFi backhaul network. With a network of Fluidmesh radios and Meraki Access Points, we created a WiFi Access Network.
  3. Connect anything: By repeating this process across the district, we extended the fiber backhaul across the district without the cost of laying new fiber. Now with dozens of these WiFi Access Networks across the at-risk communities, students have 24×7 secure Internet access for any of their devices connect and learn on the school network.

 

VIKAS: Barbara – What’s next for Canutillo Connect?

BARBARA: Well, we’re currently rolling out the first phase of the project to the most impacted neighborhoods. Upon completion of this phase, the connectivity solution will be replicated across eight other areas to provide district-wide outreach to other vulnerable populations. This is a wonderful example of how Canutillo Connect is starting to bridge the digital divide for the Canutillo schools. And it’s just the start of a larger digital transformation for their community.

Based on lessons learned with Canutillo Connect, El Paso County has pulled together a broadband working group as a united response to the county wide broadband challenge. We are currently working on multiple digital divide grants including Project Overcome and Community Connect.  Canutillo Connect is being used as a model that will be replicated as a validated design for these grants.  This replication minimizes risk and adds quick ramp up time.

VIKAS: Andrea – Can you tell our customers about how they can get started on this journey?

ANDREA: We’ve bundled up these solutions so that it’s easy for our customers to get started. This Digital Divide solution is a great way for schools to quickly address their connectivity challenges and take advantage of COVID-19 related funds.

It’s also part of a larger blueprint – the Connected Community Infrastructure (CCI) validated design – that offers a solution that has been fully tested and validated to support a broad range of city, community and roadways use cases. Based on a single, modular network with wired (fiber, Ethernet), wireless (Wi-Fi, cellular, V2X) and IoT communications (LoRaWAN, Wi-SUN Mesh) connectivity options, the solution greatly simplifies outdoor network deployment, management and security, thus lowering operating costs with cyber-security designed in.

 


 

Thanks to Barbara and Andrea for bringing us up to speed on this amazing customer story. It’s a great story of how people and technology are moving quickly to respond to the unprecedented challenges of the last year.

The reality is that Internet access is woven into the fabric of the education. Connectivity is critical no matter if students are in the physical, hybrid, or virtual classroom – whether it’s to complete homework, conduct independent research, collaborate with classmates, and go through the entire college application and admissions process. Parents need access to interact with teachers and stay involved in the educational process. Educators need access to connect to their classes and engage with students.

All of us here at Cisco IoT and Cisco Education look forward to working with school districts and communities across the globe as they work to close their Digital Divide.

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