New 24-hour wireless hotspots available in St. Clair County’s school parking lots

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Elena Cousino

Superintendent Kevin Miller of the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency talks about the new installation of hotspots in the intermediate district’s school parking lots over Zoom.

ST CLAIR COUNTY, Mich.  – The St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency recently installed 24-hour hotspots in school parking lots for students, faculty and staff to use for free. 

The wireless hotspots allow individuals to drive up in their cars and access the internet with their school credentials. The hotspots were purchased through a grant of around $9,200 for individual school districts and intermediate school districts throughout Michigan.

The installation of the hotspots was a project that the regional education agency had in mind for years.

The agency is an intermediate school district that works with seven school districts in the county, to provide support and create educational opportunities for the students. These districts are Algonac Community Schools, Capac Schools, East China School District, Marysville Public Schools, Memphis Community Schools, Port Huron Schools and Yale Public Schools. 

The St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency built a 210-mile fiber optic cable in between all of the school buildings in the district in the late 1990s, which was revamped in 2018 to improve connection speeds inside of the schools, according to Regional Superintendent Kevin Miller.

To receive internet access in the school parking lots, the agency installed broadband access points on the outside of the buildings. The access points were then connected to the internet inside the building through an existing switch.

Miller said the broadband access issue was something that needed to be fixed. With many rural and urban districts spread throughout the county, some places are unable to receive efficient and reliable internet access. 

“The digital haves and have nots in our county is about 70% have it,  about 30% don’t,” Miller said. “That’s a pretty good divide there between the haves and have nots. I’ve said this for years. Where you live should never determine whether you have good broadband access, and we’re certainly with these funds that we got, the districts and us, we’re determined to do something about that.”

 According to the 2019 U.S. Census, the total estimated population of St. Clair County was 159,128 people. This would mean that in St. Clair County, an estimated 111,390 people would have reliable access to the internet, while 47,738 people would not have reliable access. 

Before installing the access points, the education agency’s staff tested how well the devices would work in their parking lot, according to Miller. He said the broadband connection reached around a hundred yards from the building with around a 30 MB/sec signal.

For reference, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines, the general usage of a student is between five to 25 MB/sec and a standard personal video call uses around one MB/sec.

Dennis Buckmaster, the director of information technology at the regional educational service agency, said there are currently 35 active access points installed in the county’s school parking lots.

“We started talking about this in early December,” Buckmaster said. “So, we probably spent a month getting stuff ordered and getting it installed.”

The locations of the hotspots were determined by need. School districts were instructed to reach out to the regional education agency. Capac Schools, Marysville Schools, Memphis Community Schools and Port Huron Schools were the four school districts that replied to the agency and had the access points installed.

The other three school districts, Algonac Community Schools, East China Schools and Yale Public Schools had their own systems already set in place. The St. Clair County Library System also offers free wireless access in their parking lots for library card members. The exact locations of the access points can be found on St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency’s website.

East China School District did not receive the new broadband installation because they already had their own established in the past. Jodie Guzowski, a Young Fives teacher at Pine River Elementary in East China School District, said she hasn’t used the hotspots.

“I think they’re good for people that don’t have internet,” Guzowski said. “We don’t have it, but, it just wasn’t practical for me to use the hotspots in the parking lot, because I would have to pick up three kids. By the time we got there and we sat, it would just be crazy in the car and it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Guzowski is the mother of three children who all attend school in the East China School District. They are 9, 10 and 13 years old and Guzowski said it was easier to make their cell phone service into a hotspot than loading everyone into the car and heading to the school parking lot. However, if schools go back online, she said the usage of the hotspots could change.

“I think over time, especially if we go back to virtual, more people will start to use them,” Guzowski said

Although the main purpose of the broadband network is education, Miller said in the future it could possibly be opened to the public.

“Our highest priority was getting students to access that needed it,” Miller said. “Broadband is like a pipe, and the more people that are in the pipe, the slower the connections. We wanted to make sure that we were an education service agency first.”