Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Connected Coast Project

By DINA ARÉVALO

Port Isabel-South Padre Press | editor@portisabelsouthpadre.com

Originally appeared in the Port Isabel South Padre Press http://portisabelsouthpadre.com/2015/04/07/connected-coast/

Practical Concerns

Connected Coast

Increasingly, access to technology is becoming the metric by which one can predict academic achievement. So much learning in today’s classrooms makes use of computers and the internet that those without access to such are finding themselves on the wrong side of what has become known as the Digital Divide.

One educator in the Rio Grande Valley, though, is hoping to bridge that divide and ensure her students are prepared for an online future. For the past three years, Point Isabel Independent School District (PIISD) Superintendent Dr. Lisa Garcia has been revolutionizing the District by bringing in laptops, tablets and classroom Wi-Fi across all four of the District’s campuses.

Like many other districts in the Valley, however, many of PIISD’s approximately 2,600 students are categorized as being part of underserved communities. That classification means not every student may have access at home to the resources they need to succeed in the classroom. Dr. Garcia wants to change that by broadening the technological push she has already begun on District grounds by making broadband Wi-Fi available for free for the entire Laguna Madre region.

Connecting the Coast

The project Garcia is spearheading — dubbed Connected Coast — aims to establish what’s known as a mesh network that will blanket the region, from Laguna Vista to South Padre Island, with high speed internet access. It’s an enormous undertaking that the District has little chance of shouldering alone, so over the past several months, Garcia, along with local government and law enforcement leaders from the three towns, have been meeting to try to generate interest in a joint effort to get the project off the ground. “The school district … will do a lot of the initial planning stages, but the hopes is that other people will participate and help lower the costs,” said SPI Public Information Officer Adrian Rodriguez. “We are attempting a public/private partnership,” he said.

“The response is very positive, everyone’s interested. The challenge is going to be funding. … And then the challenge of just the logistics,” of installing and maintaining the network, Garcia said. “I would like to promote a seamless broadband Wi-Fi system that would benefit all of those entities mutually and we could all mutually share the burden of the expense,” she added. Those entities Garcia hopes will join in as stakeholders include law enforcement agencies, first responders and municipal governments. The thinking is that, if enough entities choose to invest in the system, the project would be able to seek grants available to both law enforcement and educational entities.

Drew Lentz, a self-described “solutions architect” who has helped establish similar public Wi-Fi networks in the Upper Valley — including for the City of McAllen and the City of Rio Grande City — says many parties could make use of the network, “It’s not just local law enforcement that we’re hoping takes advantage of this communication — network — that we’re building. We’re hoping that federal agencies like the Coast Guard, and like Customs and Border Patrol, and like FEMA, and guys like that,” he said.

How it works

The network works by installing devices, or nodes, on existing structures, such as electrical poles, and drawing energy from there. The devices, each about as big across as a sheet of paper, said Lentz, would be distributed across the region in a pattern determined by a complex engineering survey that takes into account how changes in terrain would affect the strength of the Wi-Fi signal. Hundreds of devices would be needed to serve the region. “It could be anywhere from 300 to 700. We’re looking at somewhere down the middle at 500 right now, and that’s a very rough estimate,” Lentz said. He added that the price per unit can vary widely depending on the manufacturer. “The cost per unit varies. … There’s some places that it’s very expensive. It’s $3,000 per device, and there’s some places where it’s, you know, $500 per device,” he said.

One of the advantages of the system, though is its ability to maintain a wireless internet signal even in less than ideal circumstances, such as during a natural disaster or power outage. “In the event of emergency disaster, emergency response, alternative power methods can be used to light this stuff up without having any degradation of performance at all,” Lentz said, describing how generators or even wind power could be connected to the nodes. Aside from the versatility of power supply options, the network itself can maintain open lines of communication when others fail, Lentz said. “As long there’s one point within the mesh that has a connection out to the world, then all of the other ones can take advantage of that,” he said.

A mesh network was in place in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck that city and devastated traditional forms of communication. One node was found operational, and through it, communications were re-established with neighboring nodes in a chain reaction of connectivity that subsequently became the primary communication method for first responders in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Lentz said.

With that kind of capability in mind, project planners have decided to conduct a pilot program to test the feasibility and success of such a network by linking the Port Isabel Police Department across the bay to the South Padre Island Fire Department.

Though the idea of creating an expansive Wi-Fi network across the Lower Laguna Madre communities is a novel one, there are some concerns, both with the technology itself and with the practicality of creating the network.

The nature of a mesh network requires that data “hop” from one node to the next along certain paths. Occasionally, this can lead to a latency, or discernible lag when a user tries to access information. Erik Heinrich, of San Francisco-based Wi-Fi technology company Ruckus Wireless, and formerly employed by the San Francisco Unified School District, compared it to a car traveling along a road with traffic lights, saying “The fastest route is generally the one with the fewest intersections. At each intersection, traffic usually slows (or pauses) depending on the color of the light. But if all the intersection lights are green, the delay can be minimal.” He went on to say that unique hardware patents and data traffic management systems would mitigate any such latency. “With the new FCC rules of how you define broadband, the speed that you have to be able to guarantee to say that you have broadband Wi-Fi, they (Ruckus Wireless) don’t feel like that’s going to be a problem,” said Superintendent Garcia.

Being one of the first groups in the nation to try to connect multiple communities together leads to another concern, however: cost. South Padre Island Police Chief Randy Smith expressed a tempered enthusiasm for an area-wide Wi-Fi network his officers could tap into while on duty. Currently, the police department uses air cards, which rely on cell phone networks to connect to the internet, something that can be hampered by existing heavy network traffic or even physical distance from cell towers.“It would be neat, you know, we’d like to be known to be trend setters. Being in the Laguna Madre area we always all work together to try to be trend setters, out in front of the cutting edge when it comes to technology,” Smith said. But, he added, “There’s always a price tag that comes with it.”

“The price tag seems to be rather high,” he said. “The benefits are great, don’t get me wrong.”
That high cost is the main reason why multiple stakeholders are being sought. “Once we can determine who’s going to be using this network and how much it’s going to cost, then we start to really get a better feel for what’s involved with this, not only with the capital investment side, but also from the operational expenditure (OpEx) side. And their OpEx is going to be defined by however many parties are involved,” Lentz said.

However, communications technologies continue to evolve every year, and with them, both public and private entities must adapt and continually upgrade. “Two or three years from now down the road we would be kicking ourselves if we all built stand-alone systems that don’t seamlessly communicate with each other, that are not mutually supportive of each other. So the idea is to get everybody on board and move forward in a way, so that whatever we do, is beneficial to everyone,” Garcia said.

Benefits in education


While the network would be accessible and advantageous in a variety of applications, the main concern by everyone involved in the project to date are the potential benefits for Laguna Madre school children. With his particular background in both education and technology, Heinrich has shared with members of the project an unique perspective. “In today’s 21st century education, so much of the learning takes place online. So you are now making access to the internet ubiquitous (sic) with access to education. And in those most disenfranchised and underserved areas of the city, those student populations, if they don’t have home internet connection, you’re simply increasing what’s called the Digital Divide,” he said.

Dr. Garcia agrees. “We want to raise the education attainment level of the entire community. … We want to close that Digital Divide,” she said. “Research shows us that the level of internet accessibility raises the education attainment level of anyone in the home.”

But as Dr. Garcia acknowledges, having access to electronic devices such as laptops or tablet computers does little good if the students who use them can’t access the internet. “Our interest is in extending learning into the home, and we have worked diligently over the last three years to increase our use of technology in our classrooms every day, and to put devices in kids’ hands, but we send those devices home to a lot of homes that do not have internet access,” she said.

“What good is it to give every student an iPad if they can’t even afford broadband at home?” asked Lentz. He added that for many Valley families, broadband service subscriptions are a luxury that simply cannot be afforded. “Being from rural south Texas, 50 bucks a month is food, 50 bucks a month is electricity, 50 bucks a month is water. It’s not broadband,” he said.

Dr. Garcia is currently working to achieve a “one-to-one” deployment of internet-connectable devices within the District, which would allow every student to have access to a device. Currently, only certain populations of students do, such as those in high school participating in the District’s dual enrollment program. While it’s too soon to make broad judgments about the effect increased connectivity has had on academic achievement, Garcia views the dual enrollment program as an indicator of what that achievement could possibly look like. “The one tangible piece of data that I have is our increase in students taking online courses at the high school and taking dual enrollment courses. And I think that is directly attributed to having the devices available,” she said. Over the course of the 2011-2012 school year, dual enrollment completion rates stood at 34 percent. By comparison, during the 2012-2013 school year, which marked the first year of Dr. Garcia’s initiative to put devices in students’ hands, completion rates almost doubled to 60 percent, she said.

Similarly, in a bit of ‘Field of Dreams’-like self-fulfilling”if you build it they will come” prophecy, the mere availability of technology has proven that students will come to use it. In San Francisco, where the SFUSD has been implementing a mesh network in phases since 2013, Heinrich said, already 25,000 users a day log onto the District’s existing portions. Those users don’t just include students.

“You not only want to support the education and access by students and teachers, but their community, including their parents. … That access provides opportunity, and the greater the opportunity for the adults, the better the support and the engagement that those adults will provide to children and students,” he said. Research shows that parental involvement increases academic achievement. “We’ve invested tremendously in our infrastructure within our buildings. Now we want to expand that into that mesh of our community,” Garcia said.

“We feel like now we’re getting some serious momentum towards making this project a reality,” she said.

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