The Wi-Fi gap in U.S. schools is a concern that federal, state, district and school leaders are addressing nationwide. The increase in the number of devices available on campus (both district and student owned) coupled with the increased dependence on digital content requires dependable, high speed, Wi-Fi access. Providing access to robust connectivity is critical to ensuring today’s students are college and career ready. As such, federal, state, and district-level leaders have dedicated a significant amount of time, effort, and resources toward improving our schools’ external broadband access, including both Internet access and wide area network (WAN). The integration of digital tools such as mobile devices, adaptive learning software, and real-time analytics has heightened the need to expand the broadband imperative to include access to high-quality, ubiquitous Wi-Fi access. The 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP) addresses this need and recommends that “students and educators have broadband access to the Internet and adequate wireless connectivity.” State education departments are taking note and evaluating the internal accessibility needs of their schools and generating policies and funding pathways to support their growing demands. The State Wi-Fi Leadership for Fostering Digital Learning Ready K12 Schools explores the steps states are taking to address the wireless equity gaps that exist among their schools. Leaders from Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Utah outline the planning, policy, funding, and management approaches their state agencies or education technology leaders are adopting regarding Wi-Fi, and they share their recommendations for promoting and/or creating equitable access opportunities to high-quality Wi-Fi connectivity. Highlights from this paper include: State Perspectives on Building Broadband and Wi-Fi Connectivity Support, State Action Plans for Fostering Digital Learning-Ready Schools, Wireless Challenges and Concerns, State Vignettes for Illinois, New_Mexico, North_Carolina, Utah, Lessons Learned, Pathways to High-Quality Wi-Fi Connectivity, Recommendations_Checklist, Conclusion & Key_Considerations. As districts and schools consider Wi-Fi access, planning is essential. Districts that have had substantial experience with Wi-Fi and companies that assist districts with networks and Wi-Fi agree that a 5-year plan with updates every year can provide a solid basis for a network that is effective. Following are some interconnected questions to consider as you begin to plan for high-speed Wi-Fi across schools and districts. The answer to one most probably will affect the answer to others.
- How many devices will the Wi-Fi network need to support now and how many devices in the short and long term future?
- How will those devices be used in the near term and in the longer term?
- In addition to tablets or laptops what other types of devices on campus will need Wi-Fi access (printers, digital media players, microconsoles)?
- How will Wi-Fi access in “common areas” (cafeteria, hallways, courtyard, fields, etc.) on school campuses be used?
- What levels of access and permissions will be needed for students, teachers, administrators IT staff and guests?
- How will BYOD be handled?
- How centralized will the management of the network be across the district?
- Can the IT department implement the Wi-Fi network or are outside vendors required?
- Is the WLAN architecture sufficient to handle the requirements among schools?
- What type of new or upgraded equipment will be required to implement or increase Wi-Fi access?