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Collinsville schools’ network aims to bring internet to students in Fairmont City, State Park

 

From left, Michelle Stutts, Jane Soehlke, Gary Kusmierczak, Dr. Dennis Craft, all school board members; Dr. Brad Skertich, superintendent; Derek Turner, director of technology; Mayor Michael Suarez, Fairmont City; Ben Fischer, an LTE specialist with STEPcg; Ed Walton, CEO STEPcg; Gary Peccola, school board president; Todd Kelly, SVP of Solutions Engineering STEPcg; and Dan Gregory, private LTE program director STEPcg. (Photo courtesy Collinsville schools)

Collinsville Community Unit School District 10 this month launched a private LTE network to bring internet connectivity to approximately 500 students in the Fairmont City and State Park communities.

Collinsville partnered with IT solutions provider STEPcg to construct a private LTE network which utilizes technologies from Nokia and Cambium Networks. The network is among the first in the U.S. built by a school district, school officials said.

A private LTE (for Long Term Evolution)  network uses localized micro towers and small cells to provide coverage and connectivity. It functions much like a scaled-down version of a public cellular network.

“The pandemic heightened the fact not all of our students had connectivity and exposed the need to ensure all students had equal access whether at home or at school,” CUSD 10 Superintendent Dr. Mark B. Skertich said. “Internet connectivity ensures all students are able to complete assignments, conduct research, interact with classmates and teachers, apply for scholarships, seek employment, and participate in everyday occurrences as simple as seeking the answer to a random question. The need and rationale were easy. The ‘how’ took some time.”

The district explored many different options prior to deciding on private LTE; including hotspots, routers on school buses, routers on telephone poles and paying for internet providers to install service in affected areas.

“The district’s Board of Education was 100 percent committed to breaking down the connectivity barrier,” said Skertich, “All that needed to be done was for Derek Turner, our director of technology, to find a cost effective and sustainable internet solution.”

Turner said, “As we were investigating different possibilities, I began asking about private LTE. In early 2020, the FCC had approved use by private companies, cities and schools. I was put in touch with STEPcg who helped me understand the ins and outs of private LTE and put together a bold plan to conquer the connectivity gap in our community.”

CARES stimulus funding provided the resources to make the $300,000 network a reality.

Planning began in late March 2020, according to Turner. By August, STEPcg constructed a temporary solution and conducted testing to determine any flaws in the system. During September, plans were reworked to provide more coverage and better reliability. By December 2020, construction was completed on a broadcast tower at Kreitner Elementary School, and in early 2021, microcell installs began at Kreitner Elementary, the Mounds Water District tower, and Fairmont City locations. Installation was finalized and testing completed in February, enabling the network to go “live” in March.

“Our district made a commitment to technology that started over 20 years ago with a goal of putting computers in every classroom. We continued by adding Promethean boards into the classrooms. The next step was to get Chromebooks into the hands of every student. With the 1:1 initiative that was phased in over a number of years, that goal was achieved last school year,” said Collinsville CUSD 10 Board of Education President Gary Peccola. “However, the commitment wasn’t just focused on computers. Our fiber WAN project connects all of the schools and buildings throughout our district and provides internet access to all students while they are at school, but not all students have internet access when they are at home. With the construction of this LTE broadband tower, we are taking another step forward to meet the connectivity needs of students in the State Park and Fairmont City areas.”

Technology behind the network

STEPcg is an IT engineering firm specializing in solutions powered by strategic experts and best-of-breed technologies that guide their clients through complex IT challenges.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the Digital Divide for many students and communities across America, the lack of access to affordable high-speed broadband connectivity,” said STEPcg CEO, Ed Walton. “Instead of having to drive to a restaurant or park for access to the internet, the Collinsville school district is leading the way by providing an innovative solution utilizing a private LTE network that enables safe, high-speed connectivity in the students’ homes.”

The centerpiece of the network is an LTE Broadband Tower constructed at Kreitner Elementary School which ties into the district’s internet service. In all, the network includes four Nokia CBRS microcell installations that provide approximately 4 square miles of coverage in the communities of Fairmont City and State Park. The result allows students to have equal access to school instructional programs from home.

“We are pleased to partner with STEPcg to help Collinsville school district bridge the digital divide for students challenged with remote learning during this difficult time. Nokia’s industry leading private wireless solution complemented by STEPcg’s expertise to design, deploy and operate wireless networks was critical for the success of this project,” said Vikas Trehan, Nokia’s head of partner sales in North America.

Matt Young, vice president of North America enterprise sales, Nokia Cloud and Networking Services, said, “This use case in education illustrates the benefits of private wireless for school districts across the country. Nokia DAC  enables fast and reliable connectivity to empower students in this challenging digital divide. We look forward to helping Collinsville school district accelerate on its path to a digital future for students, where 4G/pLTE capacity and performance provide a future-proofed infrastructure that enhances an educational institution’s capabilities for remote learning.”

“Cambium Networks is extremely pleased to supply our wireless solutions to STEPcg for this Collinsville school district project. Connecting the unconnected and under-connected has taken on unprecedented importance during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bryan Sheppeck, SVP, Global Sales at Cambium Networks, “Twenty-twenty accelerated an emerging trend: ‘if it can be wireless, it will be wireless’ due to its intrinsic ease and speed of deployment. STEPcg and team have demonstrated once again the economic and performance benefits of wireless solutions.”

STEPcg was founded in 2014 and has become one of the fastest-growing technology firms in the Midwest. Its portfolio enables enterprises with solutions for wireline, wireless, cellular, cloud, security, collaboration and managed services. STEPcg is a privately held company headquartered in Covington, Kentucky.

Collinsville Community Unit School District 10 comprises 13 schools serving 6,400 students PreK-12 in Madison and St. Clair Counties in Southwestern Illinois.

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