Murray School District first in nation to connect its students to high-speed LTE networkFeb 01, 2021 12:49PM ● By Julie Slama
With a twist of a connector, Gov. Spencer Cox activated the network with the help of Murray High student interns Catherine Martinez and Adam Dansie. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
When it came to schools transitioning to soft closure in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray School District was ahead of the curve, being the first in the state to do so. Within two hours of making the decision, employees put 6,500 Chromebooks in the hands of Murray students.
Now, almost a year later, Murray School District is ahead of the curve again. The small urban district launched its own LTE broadband internet network on Jan. 14, becoming the first school district in the United States to do so. The high-speed internet access will be provided to all students at no cost.
In a ceremonial cable connection, the same cable that is used to connect their radios, Gov. Spencer Cox activated the network with the help of student interns Adam Dansie and Catherine Martinez—but not without a hiccup. The governor, who has a family telecommunications business, didn’t fully twist on the connector so it pulled apart on the first attempt.
“I’ve been out for too long,” he joked.
Cox addressed the need for a high-speed network for education.
“We have equity issues in our state. Too many kids are getting left behind. And the pandemic has magnified those divides in our state. That is unacceptable anywhere,” he said, adding that UTEN (Utah Education and Telehealth Network) has worked to get high-speed internet into schools. “Getting it into the schools is not enough. We’ve done a good job of that, better than about any other state at that. It has to be in the homes.”
Cox said that state legislators, educators and others are closely following Murray District’s network. He has proposed another $50 million for educational technology in the budget this year.
“This (network) is a model for the rest of the state and a model for the nation. My vision, my dream, is that over the next four years, every student in our state will have access in their home through a device and a high-speed internet. It’s critical for so much of what we do that we need to enhance the conductivity, so all kids have the opportunity to have access to learning,” he said.
Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson reinforced that commitment.
“Thinking forward, and reimagining broadband in our lives, we must think of it as an essential utility and Murray has made a commitment to ensure that every student has an equitable opportunity to have choices for their future by having high-quality broadband in their homes,” she said.
In simple terms, Murray District has mounted radios on top of its school buildings, the district office and other locations to reach surrounding homes and apartment buildings. First-generation radios can reach half a mile, while second-generation radios extend one mile out, at optimal speed, to “put a proverbial blanket over Murray City,” said Missy Hamilton, Murray District’s Elementary Teaching and Learning director.
“We noticed in the spring that not all students connected or were engaged in on-learning and asked ourselves, ‘Why?’” she said. “The kids are really wanting access and to be able to connect to their teachers. So, we looked at what we had done, giving out Chromebooks and 300 hot spots. We learned some connections glitched, or were slow, especially when several kids were trying to connect for school and their parents were home working. But we also learned that some weren’t able to connect, and we mapped out where there were issues. We realized we needed to help them have high-speed network. It’s separate from the home network so it won’t get bogged down. Digital learning is not going away with the pandemic, so we needed to make online learning better.”
Technology coordinator Jason Eyre said now each family will receive a device that serves as an internet receiver as well as a modem, which when students open their school-issued Chromebooks, they will automatically be connected to the District’s secure network.
“We have the best of security on a wireless network that we can have,” he said, adding that this network will be secure for ticket sales for school events and activities and can be arranged to have access on long bus rides when students travel throughout the state.
Murray School District Superintendent Jen Covington said that as educators it is their job to fully engage learning, whether in the classroom, at home or in a blended learning setting.
“The Powerplay LTE initiative, which we will turn on today, will now make certain that we have a robust network that will connect all students who live and attend school in our district boundaries,” she said.
That is welcome news to parent Kayla Severnak, who has been homeschooling her kindergartner and sixth-grader since March.
“The fact that they’re doing this high-speed internet network and helping families like me, I am extremely grateful,” she said. “This fall, I called the school and said, ‘School started, and I don’t have a way to get my kids on.’”
That’s because without the district hot spot, the only option she had to get internet into her rental home was to increase her cell phone plan to have her boys connect to their class, see their teacher and get online to access their homework.
“I have to block my day out,” Severnak said about making sure both sons could get and do their assignments. “I have to make sure we don’t go over the minutes on my phone plan.”
While supplies and production have slowed during the pandemic, Eyre said currently, 44 radios have been mounted, and he is optimistic that by late February, more new radios will arrive.
In addition, 20 of about 450 Cradlepoint (receiver) devices, which were purchased with a state school board broadband grant of $270,000, are being assembled by the student interns.
The one-time cost of $600,000-$800,000 has been paid through various funds as the school district has used state and federal CARES Act grants, Murray Education Foundation donations, amongst other sources, Hamilton said.
Cox said that this is an example of Utahns coming together to succeed.
“When we work together, to better our kids’ education, to provide equal access and provide them technology to enhance their learning, we all win. I do believe this is a model for the rest of the state and to the nation. We have to bring those resources to bear and we have to bring those partners to bear,” he said. “There are lessons that we have learned from through this pandemic, but what I admire most are the people who knew these lessons before the pandemic and Murray City School District is one of those groups that understood this lesson. This isn’t something that just happened because of the pandemic. This is something that was being worked on for months, even years ahead of this because they understood and many of us understood how important technology is to enhance the educational opportunities and experiences. Jason, congratulations, this is a really big deal.”
Eyre said he is “very humbled” at the acknowledgment, but also said it’s not about him.
“(It) isn’t about me. It’s about what we’re doing for our students,” he said.
But in a way, his story is intertwined with the network he was worked on for years.
Eyre was raised in the small town of Beaver.
“I grew up as one of those kids that we would call economically challenged nowadays and I empathize and I understand the challenges a lot of our kids have,” he said.
Eyre later took a job with rural Garfield School District, where he saw a need for the 1,000 students to have devices that could connect to the internet. He said that it was too expensive for all families to provide service and there was “very poor wiring, old copper wires that weren’t able to really support internet speeds.”
But, Eyre said “you could walk out the front door of everybody’s house and see the high school. So, I said, ‘Why couldn’t we put something on the high school and then serve all these people?’”
That began his quest to provide high-speed internet, which led Eyre to reach out to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Communication Commission, Utah Education Network, Ruckus Network, Cradlepoint, and others.
“In June 2017, I came to Murray, having already been working with UTEN on the LTE,” he said. “We realized that Murray had an urban story to tell, versus the rural story that we would tell in Garfield. And it was just as important for students in urban areas as it is for students in rural areas. If you look at the size of the Murray District, and the shape of the Murray District, and the relative location of the schools to each other, this is just the perfect place to use this technology.”
The first indoor radios were placed in Murray High commons in April 2019 and two months later, the first outdoor radio was manufactured and placed outside of the high school. With those, Murray School District had filed a permit and received special permission from the FCC to test them.
“Everything we’re doing is so cutting edge as we’re the first to do this,” he said. “People are talking to us and asking us about it.”
Eyre has been in communication with 30 sites around the state, including his former school district, Garfield, which is testing a prototype, and neighboring Canyons School District, which also is looking at the technology and testing it.
Cox said that this model is one that will make a difference in students’ education: “When you have a teacher who understands the technology and you have a student who has access to that technology, we really can change the course of a life for those kids.”