Wi-Fi Enabled School Buses A Small Step In Expanding Broadband Access For Rural Pennsylvanians

Apr 9, 2019

McGuffey Middle School in Claysville, Washington County is rolling out three Wi-Fi-enabled school buses to serve kids with long commutes who may not have internet access at home. This is the latest location of Google's Rolling Study Halls initiative, which is currently operating in 16 communities across the country.

Last winter, a Pennsylvania State University study found about 11 million people across Pennsylvania don't have access to high-speed broadband, categorized as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. That's about 85 percent of Pennsylvania's 12.8 million residents.

"If you're a household that doesn't have access to broadband connectivity, you don't have access to this wealth of useful resources, everything from being able to stream Netflix to being able to apply for your next job," said Penn State researcher Sascha Meinrath. "The reality is you can't participate in modern civil social society. You can't even apply for college without broadband connectivity." 

Alex Sanchez, the program manager for the Google initiative, said the Wi-Fi equipped buses give kids with long commutes an opportunity to do homework they might not be able to complete at home.

"This is time that's otherwise spent just traveling from home to school that can now be spent working on projects," Sanchez said.

Aside from the Wi-Fi, the buses are equipped with devices -- like laptops and tablets -- kids can use to do their work. Google also covers the cost of an onboard educator, an employee of the school district who stays on the bus during the commute.

"So if students are having questions with homework, if they're working on projects and need another eye, they're valuable folks who are able to help them on the bus," Sanchez said.

Students who ride one of the Rolling Study Halls buses aren't required to do homework during their commute. However, Sanchez said the Internet is filtered, so kids can't use the devices to go on YouTube, Netflix or social media sites.

The buses will serve about half of McGuffey Middle School's approximately 400 students.

Meinrath said the program is a good idea, but that fixing the issue would require a true overhaul of the state's broadband system.

"People need connectivity in every facet of their lives, they need connectivity when they're at home, when they're not on a school bus," he said. "If we don't provide it, and if we get almost dissuaded from making this intervention because we think that somehow this is fixing the problem, we may end up worse off or even delayed in the kind of systematic intervention that needs to happen."