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If you build it, they will learn: Why some schools are investing in cell towers

Towers as tall as 150 feet are popping up to beam internet service from schools to surrounding neighborhoods during the pandemic, and maybe long term.
In the Dallas Independent School District, workers installed a cell tower and other equipment at the district’s Lincoln High School to beam internet service to surrounding homes beginning in December.
In the Dallas Independent School District, workers installed a cell tower and other equipment at the district’s Lincoln High School to beam internet service to surrounding homes beginning in December.Courtesy Dallas Independent School District

The Dallas Independent School District is used to providing internet service to students when they’re on school property. But it’s never had something quite like the 90-foot towers going up at a handful of schools in the district — its first foray into building its own network of cellular transmission towers. 

Like a growing number of school districts across the country, spurred in part by the coronavirus pandemic, the Dallas school system has recently gotten into the cell tower business. 

“It’s kind of like renting versus owning,” said Jack Kelanic, chief technology officer for the district.

The district has been renting at a steep price. It’s been buying mobile internet hotspots for 40,000 students this school year as a short-term measure to keep them connected while taking classes at home. Each one cost about $25 a month, he said, sending the district searching for a longer-term idea. 

Jack Kelanic.Dallas Independent School District

The solution they decided on was to take the district's wholesale internet service it has had a fiber-optic network for a decade — and broadcast it for free to the neighborhoods most in need. It's a decision that demonstrates not only the lengths to which schools are going to try to make remote learning feasible, but also how few options exist for low-income families in the U.S. seeking steady internet access. 

“Many of our students, the only internet they might have is if their parents had it on a cellphone,” said Renee Smith-Faulkner, associate superintendent of the Castleberry Independent School District in suburban Fort Worth. About 85 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, she said, but now they have internet access at home via three 150-foot towers. 

One year ago, the pandemic created a sudden, urgent need for better broadband access at home for people who didn’t have it, highlighting a nationwide digital divide. Some families resorted to makeshift setups in library parking lots or similar locations where they could get a Wi-Fi signal. 

Around 966,000 school-aged children live in counties with less than 50 percent broadband availability, according to BroadbandNow, a research group that favors expanded internet service.

Many school districts have tried for years to provide internet service to needy families with mixed success. The rise of cell towers — typically the province of large telecommunications companies —means that a more sturdy local infrastructure is taking shape that could outlast the emergency of the pandemic. 

Dallas is starting with cell towers at five sites, each at a cost of about $500,000. The first, at the city’s Lincoln High School, started service in late December with about 50 students, but eventually each one might expand coverage to a radius of more than 1 mile and cover a few thousand students, Kelanic said. 

In order to use the service, each household needs a free, district-distributed receiver, which can grab the new cellular signal and convert it into a Wi-Fi signal for a digital device in the house.

Cellular receivers distributed by the Dallas school district to people’s homes grab the cellular signal and convert it into a Wi-Fi signal.Courtesy Dallas Independent School District

It’s fast enough for video-conferencing, but there’s also filtering software to restrict what students can access. In some school districts, the service connects only to school-issued laptops and bans streaming services and social media. 

“It’s the same service they would get on campus. They’re just getting it at home,” Kelanic said. 

“We see this as a targeted, long-term solution,” he said. “We’re willing to step into the neighborhoods that haven’t been built or are somehow underserved by the existing providers.” 

The idea of school-based internet beamed into homes has been percolating for years, even before Covid-19 made the need clearer, but recent federal regulatory changes are making it easier. Three school districts — two in Texas and one in Utah — said they’re using a band of radio frequencies known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which was previously reserved for the Navy.

Over the past few years, federal regulators have opened the CBRS spectrum, part of the 3.5 GHz band of radiowaves, for businesses and others to share. "We need to give schools the tools they need to help solve the Homework Gap," said acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. "Thanks to the FCC's efforts, the 3.5 GHz band is a powerful slice of wireless spectrum that can do just that. I hope we can use the early success of these schools as a model for other parts of the country too.” 

The telecommunications industry has for years lobbied against many government-provided internet services, arguing in favor of free enterprise, and municipal broadband is banned in 22 states, according to BroadbandNow. Last month, House Republicans proposed nationwide restrictions.

Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for the Internet & Television Association, said the industry trade group did not have a specific comment about schools expanding home internet service but that its members are working separately with districts to help get students connected at home. Many providers have given discounts during the pandemic.

Broadband providers may even benefit if schools increase their spending on wholesale service.

“They’re not losing business by us giving internet to those who can’t afford it. It’s an entirely different market,” said Jacob Bowser, Castleberry’s director of technology operations.

Jeannette Bowen in Murray, Utah, said her family, including seven children, relied on their home internet service when the pandemic forced them to stay home a year ago. She said the service, Comcast’s Xfinity, would often need to be reset as the entire family tried to be online at once. (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

There were times when all seven of them were on devices at the house,” Bowen said. 

But now that they're getting cellular internet service from a school-run cell tower, “I don’t even have to think about their connection,” she said. Although they don’t need it during the day because Murray’s schools are now back to in-person classes, Bowen said the service worked well when a recent snowstorm required an at-home school day. 

“This network is designed for scale and it’s designed for a lot of people to be pressuring it,” said Jason Eyre, the technology supervisor for Murray schools.

The district has built 10 towers, each one only 6 feet tall because they’re on top of roofs, he said. The district has distributed home receiver equipment to about 30 families, with plans to reach 400 in all, he said.

How schools pay for cell towers is a moving target. Districts have been using money from the CARES Act coronavirus relief package passed a year ago, as well as from private donors and other sources. Congress has generally prohibited using money from the federal E-Rate program, which subsidizes internet service for schools and libraries, though that may change under the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. 

Smith-Faulkner, from the Castleberry school district, said the pandemic has melted a lot of the neighborhood resistance to building cell towers, with concerns ranging from property values to safety. She recalled hostile local planning meetings in 2017, when she and her staff were first working on the idea and someone feared a plane might hit a tower. 

“I don’t know how many black eyes we have from people telling us, ‘What? You’re crazy,’” she said. “However, after March, it was plastered over. We went from, ‘Why are these crazy people wanting to provide this?’ to ‘Everybody needs to think like this.’”