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Hybrid teaching and homespots: mobile network coverage in schools

The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed some of the shortcomings digitization faces in Germany. As a result, some problems have become clearly visible in our schools as well. Hardly any school is prepared, from an organizational or technical point of view, to offer digital teaching formats, as well as distance, alternative, or hybrid teaching. Aside from suitable devices, such as laptops or tablets, schools are primarily lacking a fast Internet connection and WLAN in the classrooms. In many schools, the technical prerequisites for a fast provision of broadband Internet and WLAN are generally not available at all. In such cases, one can resort to the so-called homespots or mobile hotspots, in conjunction with the school's mobile network provider.

The COVID 19 pandemic has exposed many grievances in Germany. For instance, a number of problems have become clearly visible in our schools, with these being related to an inadequate digitization. Hardly any school is prepared, from an organizational or technical point of view, to offer digital teaching formats, as well as distance, alternative, or hybrid teaching. Aside from suitable devices, such as laptops or tablets, schools are primarily lacking a fast Internet connection and WLAN in the classrooms. In many schools, the technical prerequisites for a fast provision of broadband Internet and WLAN are generally not available at all. In such cases, one can resort to the so-called homespots or mobile hotspots, in conjunction with the school’s mobile network provider. In its example project, the Berlin senate relies exactly on this solution.

In the following article, we will take a closer look at the mobile network coverage in school, clarifying why mobile hotspots might represent a viable alternative for many schools. We will offer a brief introduction on the Berlin Homespot project.

Fast Internet and WLAN – basic prerequisite for digital teaching formats

Digital teaching formats require a suitable IT infrastructure in schools. Offering students and teachers laptops or tablets, currently purchased on a large scale with funds provided by the Federal Government, within the context of the Digital Pact, is far from enough. Without Internet access and WLAN, these devices have a limited application for formats such as distance, alternative or hybrid teaching. For example, when it comes to hybrid teaching – a mix of online and in-person teaching – it is imperative for on-site teachers and students to stay in contact online with students who cannot be present. The fast wireless Internet communication is a prerequisite when it comes to the streaming of live images or the exchange of teaching materials and the joint work on classroom subjects. It is not a solution to connect the end devices to the school network and Internet via cable. Wireless network access via WLAN is mandatory.

Potential obstacles for the WLAN coverage in classrooms

Many German schools deal with both the absence of broadband Internet access and WLAN coverage in classrooms. The bandwidths of schools connected to the Internet via DSL are limited and in many locations fast Internet connections via fiber optics are dreams of the future. Even when a faster Internet access is available, this does not mean that each classroom has access possibilities via WLAN. Often times, structural conditions and an inadequate cable infrastructure prevent the widespread equipping of a school with WLAN access points. Providing the appropriate infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming. Given the current COVID 19 pandemic, this time does not exist.

Mobile hotspots – a fast and simple solution for WLAN and broadband Internet in each classroom

Combined with the mobile network of the school, mobile hotspots, also known as homespots, offer a fast and simple solution for WLAN and broadband Internet in each classroom. The devices used are routers, with a fast connection to the Internet via 4G (LTE) or 5G, which also have the ability to act as WLAN hotspots. The devices in the WLAN radio radius of homespots can connect to the routers, thus obtaining Internet access via the mobile network. The homespots can be operated anywhere in the area covered by the mobile network, requiring only a suitable SIM card for the mobile communications provider in question. Depending on the device, these are powered via the power supply network or accumulator, respectively rechargeable batteries.

The initial setup of these devices is very simple. Generally-speaking, it is enough to set it up in an adequate location and offer users the necessary WLAN access data. Thus, they represent a viable alternative and a pragmatic solution until schools are equipped with a fiber-optic Internet connection and WLAN access points. So that the homespots can be implemented in a school, it is important to make sure that the number of devices connected to WLAN and the Internet speed are sufficient. The mobile network operators currently active in Germany, Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica (O2) have all the corresponding devices and tariffs in their portfolio. For instance, the homespot from Vodafone is called GigaCube. Telekom operates mobile WLAN routers under the product name Speedbox. Depending on the type of device, the mobile hotspots are suitable for 4G and/or 5G mobile networks, reaching a transmission speed of up to 300 or even 500 megabits per second.

Example project: 10.000 homespots for Berlin schools

An example project for the provision of German schools with homespots is currently unfolding in Berlin. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic and the necessity of digital teaching formats, the Berlin Senate for Education, Youth and Family has decided to make available 10.000 mobile hotspots for Berlin schools. Classrooms from approximately 700 Berlin schools were connected to broadband Internet in a fast and uncomplicated manner, thanks to the homespots. The routers represent a quick and interim solution, until the schools can be equipped with nationwide, high-performance broadband fiber-optic connections. They provide the classrooms, in which they are installed, with WLAN and Internet access, based on a fast LTE mobile network connection.

The German Telekom and Vodafone have already offered 5.000 LTE routers for the Berlin project. The devices only need to be plugged into the socket in the classroom, and placed in a location that is well covered by the mobile network, for example by the window. The Berlin Education Administration has commissioned and paid for the devices. The acquisition cost is around 100 Euro per device. In addition, about ten Euro per month are paid for the operation of the device. Thus, the total costs of acquisition are around one million Euro per year, while the operating costs reach a value of approximately 1,2 million Euro annually. Of course, the homespots can also be used for regular teaching. Teachers have more flexibility when it comes to organizing their lessons, being able to offer hybrid teaching for halved learning groups. The first devices in the Berlin project were already put into service on 24.3.2021, at the Immanuel Kant Secondary School in Lichtenberg.

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