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Texas County Uses Managed Private Network to Connect Students

Harris County, Texas, is turning to a managed private network to bring broadband connectivity to disadvantaged households. Officials hope the effort will increase access to distance learning.

An illustration of a signal tower transmitting.
Shutterstock/wanpatsorn
Wireless Internet technology is being deployed in Texas to provide distance learning, health and work access for households lacking broadband connectivity.

Harris County, home to Houston, is turning to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS)-based private broadband technology to bring Internet connectivity into homes in a move to help close the digital divide often kept open due to economic struggles in disadvantaged communities.

The technology, provided by Motorola, will initially be deployed across five sites to support about 1,000 homes, with an additional 26 mobile and fixed sites deployed by the end of the year, increasing the number of connected homes to 6,000.

“These sites are aligned with areas where there is a high percent of households with no Internet access and a high percent of households that have no computer or smartphone or tablet,” said John Speirs, program manager for the Office of Broadband in Harris County, Texas. “This aligned with those students that were receiving devices from school districts.”

CBRS — not to be confused with Citizens Band Radio — is a fairly new spectrum outlined by the Federal Communications Commission and is dedicated to the formation of private broadband networks using existing LTE technology.

“So a new spectrum, leveraging existing technology, but now into a private architecture to solve some of these problems,” explained Scott Schoepel, vice president of global enterprise at Motorola Solutions.

The flexible and mobile nature of the technology allows it to be deployed quickly and effectively.

“You can build coverage and capacity where you need it, as you need it,” said Schoepel. “So if there’s areas where there is no good coverage, say from a commercial network, or something like that, you can build the coverage.

“I think it’s one of the big advantages of the private side, being able to build back coverage and capacity where you need it,” he added.

The private network also gives the county or school district partners the ability to control what content is active.

“It’s not just a wide-open Internet, where you can get on anything the Internet has to offer. You can control access to the content for what you want them to see — so the school-based content and so forth,” said Schoepel. “So again, the ability to deploy coverage capacity where you need it, control what content is accessible, really gives them a nice fit for solving that problem that they had in the short term with their distance learning.”

The network can handle voice, video and data, making it also applicable to a number of smart city applications.

Las Vegas is using a CBRS-enabled private network to monitor park activity. The city is partnering with Cox Communications on a new pilot project to deploy video cameras and radar sensors to gather data related to usage, parking lot activity and other real-time feedback from the park.

“There’s continued interest in applications for the technology in government, especially education. I think as we move forward, we certainly will see smart city evolution,” said Schoepel.

Outside of government, CBRS has the potential to serve transportation, logistics, manufacturing and related sectors.

“A lot of them are looking at the technology to apply to their businesses, and how they use it to solve problems,” said Schoepel. “So we see government sector, but also in the enterprise sector we think there’s a lot of opportunity for this type of technology with a private format that can really do some things differently.”

In Harris County, managed private network is one part of a larger connectivity strategy. In December 2020 the Harris County Commissioners Court approved a resolution to develop a long-term strategy and action plan to provide immediate funds to support the development of broadband infrastructure. In addition to the private LTE network, the county deployed Wi-Fi hot spots, community mesh Wi-Fi locations and mobile Wi-Fi in the form of buses and vans serving as temporary solutions for broadband connectivity.

“Our focus was the students,” said Speirs, adding the county is now underway to develop a long-term strategy to expand broadband connectivity.

“The demands of the household in 2021 are much different than they were before COVID,” said Spiers as he called attention to the numerous parts of everyday life supported by a web connection, particularly when thinking about new work-from-home scenarios or telehealth.

“Maybe that pre-visit could have been solved just by a simple virtual checkin with their doctor, and saved a trip,” said Spiers.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.