Every weekday, a fleet of 20 buses ferries students to and from the Becker, Minn., elementary, middle and high schools. When they arrive at the curb, you can barely see a small object — about the size and color of a hockey puck — on the roof above the driver.

That device is part of a wireless communications system that, for some of the students anyway, makes it almost as if they never left the classroom.

Eighth-grader Mason Seeley and his brother, Parker, a sixth-grader, spend about an hour on the bus each way every day. They like to finish their school assignments on board so they have more free time when they get home.

Eighth-grader Erica Freeman said she recently used the Wi-Fi system to complete assignments on the way back from a field trip to the Science Museum of Minnesota. And eighth-grader Georgia Thom perhaps makes even more use of the system, since she’s often on a bus to and from activities.

“I’m on the dance team, and we had a meet at (St. Cloud) Cathedral the other night,” Thom said. “It helps when you have access to your assignments. I did a worksheet on the bus. Otherwise, I’d have had to wait until I got home to do it and that would’ve been about 10 o’clock.”

Thanks to a collaboration between Clear Lake-based Palmer Wireless and the Becker Public Schools, these students and others are able to use bus time to access the Internet and do homework or other activities just as if they were at school.

All students in grades 8-12 currently have school-provided iPads. Within two years, the plan is for all students 1-12 to have access to an iPad, although only middle school and high school students will take them home. But younger students also can access the wireless system with their own devices.

The partners who made it happen — with no effect to taxpayers — tout it as a “rolling study hall.” It’s not the only such system in Minnesota, but it’s the most extensive use of technology in the state, according to Becker Superintendent State Malone.

And Palmer Wireless, which uses St. Cloud-based NewCore Wireless to host the technology, says it provides great revenue options for small- and medium-sized phone companies that struggle against declining land-line additions.

“The ability to have textbooks on iPads and to learn via the Internet is critical today,” said Albert Kangas, who owns Palmer Wireless with his wife, Laura, and business partner Tim Boie. “The way a child learns now isn’t the way we learned.

“We saw a need and so we started asking ourselves ‘How can we do this?’ Palmer didn’t have good service in Becker, but the city would permit us to have a tower in town if we provided services for the schools.”

Local Company

The Kangases have been in the wireless industry for decades, and Albert also is general manager and chief operating officer at NewCore, which provides technology to rural carriers. Palmer Wireless was formed in 2006. The business has grown to serve Clear Lake, Foley, St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids and rural areas.

“People used to see the tower and so they’d call our house and ask if we could help them with wireless service for their Internet,” Laura Kangas said. “That led to solutions for phone, mobile phone and security systems. We saw a lack of communication by the big companies with the local base. These are the people local phone companies used to serve. Our goal was to bring service back to those people.”

The process to connect the Becker buses started almost two years ago.

“We originally applied for a grant through the Public Utilities Commission to do something like this, but we didn’t get it,” said Ryan Cox, director of instructional technology for Becker schools. “But then Albert (Kangas) came to us with this partnership. The thing that’s nice is, while he speaks for Palmer Wireless, he also speaks for what’s best for our kids.”

The city of Becker was reluctant to allow a tower in town of the size Palmer needed, but it was permitted if it was going to benefit the school district, Albert Kangas said. Ultimately, Palmer struck a deal with the school district to provide 20 mobile 3G/Wi-Fi modems for the bus fleet, Internet service for those modems and backup Internet service for the district in case its primary provider has an outage. The wireless company then had the right to build a 170-foot tower on the Becker campus that would give Palmer access to a broad swath of potential new customers. The arrangement is for a five-year contract with a five-year renewal option.

To further maximize the investment, Palmer coordinated the tower pole to double as a light standard for the school’s soccer field and hold wireless Internet antennas to cover the campus. That has improved cell coverage on campus.

“We’re all about leveraging technology to advance instruction and learning,” said Malone, who supervises a district of about 2,500 students — a vast majority of whom ride the bus. “We think technology can help our students not only connect with their peers in the classroom but with peers and resources across the world. We’re finding our students are more motivated to learn when they’re using iPad technology. These kids are digital natives. This is what they’re grown up with. We’re converting more textbooks to interactive digital textbooks ... and our teachers are able to do a better job because they can differentiate their instruction to the needs of all the students in the classroom. They can teach to the level of each student and by the learning style of that student.”

Long Bus Rides

Malone said bus rides average an hour to an hour and a half in the morning and again in the evening.

“By putting wireless on the buses, that gives us an extra two hours every day where they can be using that time to learn, do homework, research and turn assignments in,” Malone said. “It’s capturing that down time on the bus that otherwise would’ve been lost. Kids who are involved in activities and don’t get home until late at night, they have every opportunity now to get their homework done. The kids love it.”

As a result, students are more focused (read: quiet) on the bus and, having maximized their ride, have more free time at home. Teachers can use the system on field trips and coaches can update and check on scores on the way home from games. And, since the system connects with the school’s server, a filter blocks content that’s inappropriate for children.

Falcon National Bank helped finance the project with a Small Business Administration loan to Palmer. And Minnetonka-based GetWireless supplied expertise with the cabling and power supply necessary for the system. But most of the work, including installing the systems on the buses, fell to the Kangases and Boie. They estimate the cost of their investment at about $100,000, which perhaps gives an idea what they hope to recoup from the new tower.

“There’s no cost to the taxpayers, so it’s been a win-win,” Malone said. “It’s a great example of a public-private partnership.”

Even if you’re not a Palmer customer, the new tower could benefit you. Other wireless carriers can use the Palmer network in Becker to improve coverage for their customers.

Sumre Robinson, a network manager technician for Becker schools, played a pivotal role in connecting the school’s system with Palmer. She said the experience was much different from working with a national company.

“All I had to do was text (Albert Kangas) and he’d be here if we had a question or something to work out,” Robinson said. “With larger vendors, we’d get nowhere close to that kind of treatment. I’ve lived here 25 years and for so long we only had one choice for our Internet, one choice for phone and one choice for cable. Whether you use it or not, it’s nice to have options.”

Many Benefits

The Kangases know what it’s like to grow up in a rural community. They’re originally from McGregor, a town of several hundred people northeast of Mille Lacs Lake. They each had long bus rides, and now their daughter, Ally, currently in the seventh grade at Becker, rides the bus from Palmer Township.

“There are still areas in the school district where people only have dial-up Internet service,” said Laura Kangas, who also has two college-aged daughters with her husband. “When we first tested this system, we put a GPS unit in our daughter’s backpack. We could track all the bus stops. We could see how long they were stopped, how fast they were driving. There are a lot of other uses for a system like this if you want to take advantage of them. I could see kids possibly having school badges and, whether you’re the school or the parents, you could go online and see where they are and whether they’ve been dropped off at home or not.”

Parents could also check online during bad weather to see about when the bus is going to arrive, saving time spent shivering at the end of a driveway, for example. The school could choose to install wireless security cameras on the buses.

The first buses got the wifi technology during the fall. All are now equipped, though the technology staff at the school are still working out occasional bugs in the system, such as when too many kids try to log on at once on the same bus.

“It’s still very much a work in progress,” said Cox, a former social studies teacher who was a technology integrationist for several years in District 742.

Palmer is working toward partnerships with other providers that would allow the buses to maintain their connection even on long activity trips statewide.

The system could be expanded to cities or other government agencies, giving them the capability of GPS tracking of maintenance trucks, parking meter revenue opportunities and digital signage on public transportation.

“There are a lot of ways it can pay for itself,” Albert Kangas said. “If you’ve got a fleet of vehicles and you can track them to be more efficient — save a couple of gallons of gas here or a half-hour’s time there — that adds up over time.”

©2014 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)