COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - One of the vans in the Three Rivers Community Schools fleet outfitted with a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot is parked in the lot at Riverside Apartments and Townhomes Thursday. The van is part of an initiative through the district to provide students with Wi-Fi while they’re learning from home.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Pictured is the Wi-Fi hotspot attached to one of the buses used for Three Rivers Community Schools' mobile Wi-Fi initiative.

TRCS providing 'innovative' mobile Wi-Fi for students

THREE RIVERS — According to a survey sent out to Three Rivers Community Schools families at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, about one in four students in the district do not have access to reliable internet at home.

With learning from home now a necessity since school buildings are closed, the need for students to have internet to do their schoolwork has been greater than ever.

The district’s solution? Bringing the Wi-Fi to them.

This week, the district’s mobile Wi-Fi initiative rolled out, sending district vehicles outfitted with Wi-Fi hotspots out to different sites in and around Three Rivers for the purpose of helping those students who need the internet get the internet.

TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag said the idea began with the premise of getting internet to the students who could not be transported to the school buildings, which were recently outfitted to have expanded Wi-Fi outside of them.

“We kicked around, well, do we drive a bus around and pick up a limited amount of kids and bring them to a building? Then, we thought, with social distancing requirements, that's not an option,” Moag said. “So, we asked the question: Can we create a mobile hotspot, and can we outfit a bus or a van?”

After discussing the idea with some Board of Education members and TRCS Technology Coordinator Nick Bryant, the district outfitted two vans and a bus, with the help of Moss Telecom of Grand Rapids, with the Wi-Fi equipment.

Moag said the vehicles will be running Monday through Friday at five locations, each at different times. From 9 a.m. to noon, the vehicles will be at the Carol Shippy Center on Broadway Street, Riverside Apartments and Townhomes on M-60 and the Golden Pond Mobile Home Park on Youngman Road; and from 1-4 p.m., the vehicles will be at Meyer Broadway Park on Broadway Road and the Jones-Newberg Fire Station at the McKinley Street parking lot in Jones.

The spots the vehicles are at were chosen because of the preliminary work done with food distribution when schools first shut down.

“We feel a bit better, because there's very limited interaction, both with students and the adults on site, with the Wi-Fi distribution versus meals, since with meals, you're handing things to people,” Moag said. “I think we had that information based on the fact we had entertained early on about delivering meals to these sites.”

Bryant said students can access the network by going to one of the locations and either walking up or driving up. Each vehicle has a password that changes weekly that students can use to get on the network. Bryant said school internet content filters are still in place with the connections, the speed of which he said is comparable to a home Wi-Fi connection.

Technology-wise, Bryant said it took about a month to set everything up.

“[Moss Telecom] had amazing ideas about how to rig the current pieces and how we might work it into a bus Wi-Fi,” Bryant said. “The manufacturing and setup was easy, but the engineering behind it, I thought it was innovative.”

While a specific cost for the project wasn’t given, both Bryant and Moag said the project was a “lot less expensive” than they originally thought.

“Being the first school district in southwest Michigan that Moss worked with, I believe it was kind of a test or pilot, so we were able to keep the cost to the district down considerably,” Bryant said.

Moag said he plans on having the mobile Wi-Fi be available until the end of the school year in early June. However, if the next school year has to start virtually, he said the district will be “well positioned” to do so with the mobile Wi-Fi in their arsenal.

“We had some short-term ideas in mind, but this is certainly a great solution for the long term if we need to go there,” Moag said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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