West Virginia Quickly Builds Statewide Network for Students

As students and their families wait for better Internet at home, West Virginia has deployed hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points in facilities across all of its counties that any student can use.

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Long-term connectivity solutions require months or years of planning and construction, but students need Internet access now. With its mountainous topography and sparsely populated areas, West Virginia understands this un-ideal reality as well as any state, so it created what some might call a Band-Aid solution: the Kids Connect Initiative, a unified education network with hundreds of Wi-Fi access points.

The project started in early August, leaving little time for implementation before Sept. 8, the first day of school in West Virginia. 

“We had roughly 30 days,” said Joshua Spence, chief technology officer of the state. “There was no contract. There was no equipment. There was basically just a list of locations and a concept.”

“We had a ton of cablers scrambling throughout the state,” said Tim Conzett, a senior administrator for the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE). “It was crazy. Twelve- and 14-hour days over and over.”

The concept was to allow any K-12 or college student the ability to use Wi-Fi from any access point within a network spread over the entire state. Spence’s office coordinated with WVDE and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) for the initiative, which called for installations at county schools, higher education institutions, libraries and state parks. 

By Sept. 8, the state managed to set up about 850 locations that were ready for students. Since then, more places, such as some of the state’s national guard armories, have received installations. More access points are in the works at Division of Motor Vehicles offices, county school board offices and other easily accessible sites in every county. 

“We intend to have over 1,000 [locations] when it’s all said and done,” Spence said.  

“If one site’s down or something’s not working, they won’t have to go too far to get [Internet],” said Matt Turner, HEPC’s executive vice chancellor for administration. “The more sites we have, the more convenient it is for students and families.”

The state had to suspend procurement rules in order to attain the necessary equipment within the short timeframe, Spence said. Three companies — Advantage Technology, Alpha Technologies and Citynet — divvied up most of the installations. Spence’s office, which “doesn’t do IT for education directly,” ended up installing equipment at 100 libraries in 10 days. 

Spence said the equipment was procured from Cisco Meraki, whose cloud technology fit well with West Virginia’s goal. 

“Cloud management enables a unified management of the wireless network more easily,” Spence said, adding that the state is now taking care of the authentication component.

Conzett said it was impressive how three competing companies, which normally try to outbid each other, came to the table with similar costs for things. Conzett also gives a lot of credit to Spence’s organization, as WVDE’s developers were tied up with existing data system and network management duties. 

“It’s not like we can pull [WVDE developers] out and say, ‘Help us make this work,’” Conzett said. “Josh’s office was essential.”

Spence believes the success of the initiative contradicts a typical narrative about the nature of government response. 

“I think there’s a perception that government is slow and inflexible,” Spence said. “However, with certain challenges, government can respond and leverage technology to make dramatic changes in the short term.” 

Spence also provided advice for other state organizations that may be looking at doing similar fast solutions.  

“It’s real important to talk about the plan or the goal of your plan and repeatedly come back to those goals and make sure all stakeholders are on the same page,” Spence said. “Sometimes I feel, especially in technology projects, we may be saying the same words, but words have different meanings resulting from different interpretations and different perspectives. When you need to move extremely quick, you have to prevent that divide from occurring.” 

Although all of the stakeholders in West Virginia government admit that Kids Connect is a short-term fix, something had to be done for the present semester. From Conzett’s perspective, calling the initiative a “Band-Aid” doesn’t give enough emphasis to the urgent need for connectivity in West Virginia. More than half of the state’s K-12 population didn’t have “acceptable Internet access.” 

“We’re not just talking about students,” Conzett said. “We’re talking about staff as well. There are teachers in the state of West Virginia who don’t have Internet access at home, either. The network is as much for them as it is for the student side.”

“In West Virginia, a large city is 40,000 people,” Turner said. “It truly is. We have a lot of first-generation college students who grew up in rural West Virginia. They may not have reliable broadband access in these small communities.”

Conzett added that he’s having regular conversations with technology directors at local school systems. He keeps telling them to reach out to local partners, as one never knows what kind of deal can be made to get students more convenient broadband. He cited the example of Doddridge County. 

“Between the board of education, the county board and this company, they put together a plan to wire every home in Doddridge County,” Conzett said. “They’re going to use the [Career Technical Education] kids to help do troubleshooting and other things at the home. There was a negotiated cost. The vendor is doing the installations. It’s not going to cost a fortune to the county.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.
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