Online access has become vital for Hawaii children, now more than ever. COVID-19 has meant distance learning for most of Hawaii’s students.
However, not everyone has reliable internet access, but WiFi on Wheels is a new effort on Oahu to bring the internet to westside families to help their kids learn and thrive.
The program uses two vans to drive around the Waianae area, delivering internet to the students who need it.
“We know that internet connectivity is an issue that was here long before COVID. And it's continuing to persist,” David Miyashiro, Executive Director of the education non-profit Hawaii-Kids Can. It is one the organizations leading the WiFi on Wheels pilot program.
To start, the program is partnering with Kamaile Academy, a K-12 public school of about 900 students.
However, Kamaile Academy Principal Paul Kepka noted that the van is a resource for the whole community.
“We welcome any child to hop on. If a kid needs internet, it's our school, it's our community, it's our responsibility,” he said.
“If another student from another school were to hop on, we would welcome that and hope that we're able to help them.”
Kepka recorded about 60 of his school’s families do not have internet access, which is why the vans are a welcome resource.Families are notified of where the van will be parked and transmit WiFi from that area from about 8:30 A-M to 3 P-M. And about 15 children can use the source at a time.
The connection spans about 100 to 200 feet from the vehicle.
Partners in Development, a nonprofit providing resources to families in need, supplied the vans and the employees to staff the vehicles.
Terry Nakamura is a program director at PID. He explained that the group had resources for the vans because it hasn’t been able to offer many of its usual in-person services -- like preschool.
“We've had flexibility so we have the manpower to actually drive the van as well,” he said.
“For each van, we have two staff and they drive it to their locations. They park it, they transmit the Wi Fi service and then drive back to the office.”
Kalei Kaʻilihiwa with Kamehameha Schools, another partner in the project, noted WiFi access can be critical for more than just school.
“Things like telehealth opportunities, telehealth appointments can also happen,” she said. “That supports the other family members in the household more than just a child.”
The two vans will cost about eight thousand dollars for the whole year. The WiFi can also be easily moved to another vehicle.
Ken Hosac, a vice president at Cradlepoint explained that the company installed the Wi-Fi in the vans by converting an LTE signal into internet access for students. He has been carrying out similar projects across the country.
“With wireless, you can deploy it in a day,” he said. “Frankly, if they wanted to roll this out to 50 other locations, they could do that tomorrow, in one day.”
Cradlepoint works with AT&T so the company can deploy access wherever there is an AT&T connection.
He explained that new technology could provide a longer-term solution for connectivity beyond the mobile vans.
“Schools themselves are located near a lot of these disadvantaged neighborhoods and are looking at creating their own private LTE network, using the fiber at the schools, connecting and converting it to a wireless signal,” he said.
“With good antennas at their school, the range would be enough that they can actually bring that wireless signal all the way to the student's home.”
He said one aspect of delivering internet to public school students that is making sure it is in compliance with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act. That means if schools are providing internet to students it needs to protect its students from inappropriate content on the internet. Staff needs to actually monitor the online activities of minors who are using school provided internet.
“This is why the schools can't use consumer hotspots because consumer hotspots that don't have the content filtering necessary to comply with this,” Hosac said.
Over the summer the state department of education set up six mobile learning hubs in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area, Hana, Lanai, Molokai and Kauai. However, only the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa resource continued to operate into the school year.
Miyashiro is working to roll out more vans to areas that need them in downtown Honolulu and on the Big Island, Maui and Molokai.
“We took very seriously the call to action, that Superintendent Kishimoto said, which is that connectivity is not just a DOE challenge. It's not just a DOE solution,” he said.
“This is really a community challenge.”
A DOE survey found a quarter of public school students don't have reliable internet at home, indicating that the need is significant. The department is still deciding if children will continue to fully distance learn in the second quarter starting in November.