City partners on pilot network connecting students to high-speed internet

The city of Indianapolis has partnered with several philanthropic organizations to fund the launch of a $1.7 million pilot network to connect students at six public schools with high-speed internet to enable eLearning.

The city announced Tuesday that it is funding the network with $730,000 in federal CARES Act funding. The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation contributed $500,000, Lilly Endowment Inc. donated $330,000 and the Indiana 5G Zone has contributed $100,000.

If proven successful in the pilot stage, the Marion County Dedicated Network Pilot could be expanded to serve public school students countywide as soon as early 2022.

The announcement comes after schools in Marion County were mandated to close for in-person instruction because of rising COVID-19 cases, sending students home for e-learning through at least Jan. 4.

A needs analysis conducted earlier this year found that 25% of Marion County students lack access to high-speed internet at home.

The network will be piloted at six county schools that were chosen based on geographic distribution and ability to optimize signal coverage: George Washington High School in Indianapolis Public Schools; Harrison Hill Elementary School in Lawrence Township; Southport Elementary School and Winchester Village Elementary School in Perry Township; and two public charter schools, Riverside High School and Vision Academy.

Ivy Tech Community College’s Indianapolis campus also will be part of the pilot. The site will expand the network’s reach for families in the Riverside neighborhood while connecting Ivy Tech students to test a different use of the network. This is important because non-school users will be required in order to expand countywide, the city said in a news release.

The network will allow for up to 1,500 WiFi hotspots and 2,000 video call users. It will launch in February and will run through September. At that time, partners and funders will decide whether to expand it countywide.

Energy Systems Network and Indiana 5G Zone will implement the pilot, and SBA Communications will provide the network infrastructure and services.

SBA is utilizing a technology known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, which has been used by rural internet service providers to enhance broadband connectivity and is being considered for other education network pilots across the U.S.

“As COVID-19 forces students to learn remotely, it’s critical that we do all we can to ensure they remain connected to high-quality eLearning,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said in written comments.

The Indianapolis eLearning Fund launched earlier this year to address gaps some Marion County students face when trying to learn from home, including no access to internet. Last school year, the fund connected families with mobile hotspots as a short-term solution and issued a request for proposals to create a network that enables all Marion County public school students to connect.

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