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Salt Lake area district tackles education’s digital divide with homegrown broadband network

Murray High School students Catherine Martinez, left, and Adam Dansie ceremoniously connect the first phase of Murray City School District’s wireless broadband network with Gov. Spencer Cox, center, at a press conference at the district’s office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
Murray High School students Catherine Martinez, left, and Adam Dansie ceremoniously connect the first phase of Murray City School District’s wireless broadband network with Gov. Spencer Cox, center, at a press conference at the district’s office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

MURRAY — Education leaders here leveraged COVID-19 relief funding and in-house tech expertise to do something they say no other public school district in the country has yet to accomplish — launching its own high-speed internet service expressly for students.

On Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined Murray City School District Superintendent Jennifer Covington, State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson and others to ceremoniously connect the first phase of the district’s own wireless broadband network.

Covington said the district had already accomplished the goal of putting laptops in the hands of every student that needed one, a full two years ago, and now was addressing the other side of the technology challenge.

“The Powerplay LTE initiative will now make certain that we will have a robust network that will connect all students that live and attend school in our boundaries,” Covington said.

Covington said the remote teaching and learning challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated efforts that were already underway to “examine our teaching practices and leverage technology in new ways to meet students’ and families’ needs.”

Murray High School students Adam Dansie, left, and Catherine Martinez speaks with Jason Eyre, technology department coordinator with Murray City School District, at a press conference at the Murray City School District office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
Murray High School students Adam Dansie, left, and Catherine Martinez speaks with Jason Eyre, technology department coordinator with Murray City School District, at a press conference at the Murray City School District office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The system uses school-mounted radio transceivers to beam high-speed internet signals to nearby neighborhoods.

Jason Eyre, technology department coordinator for Murray schools said officials first identified which areas had the biggest concentration of households in need, based on how many students lived there and their families’ relative economic status. Those areas, Eyre said, determined deployment of the first seven radio transmitters that are providing service to about 1,1100 students. Later this year, the school system will begin installing some 19 additional transmitters which, when the system is built out, will connect about 4,500 students to free broadband internet. To connect with the system, each household gets a small unit that functions both as a receiver of the internet signal as well as a wireless modem for the home.

Cox, who has a solid tech background himself thanks to time spent earlier in his career working for his family’s telecommunication business, lauded Murray City

School District’s project and praised education leaders there for their technological foresight.

“There are many lessons we have learned during this pandemic,” Cox said. “What I admire most are those who knew this lesson before the pandemic.”

Cox said one of the issues that’s been brought into stark relief by the public health crisis is the wide differences among Utah’s public school student population when it comes to accessing tech tools and connectivity.

“We have equity issues in our state,” Cox said. “Too many kids are getting left behind and this pandemic has magnified those divides.

“In many of our school districts, it’s not the kids in the affluent neighborhoods ... with two parents and a middle-class lifestyle who are falling behind. It’s the kids who come from less-affluent neighborhoods who don’t have access to the very tools we’re talking about today that are getting left behind. And that is unacceptable.”

Cox said he has asked Utah lawmakers to approve new funding for education technology in his recently released budget proposal and plans to prioritize advancing efforts to close the technology gap.

A transmitter that connects a wireless broadband network is visible on the roof of the Murray City School District office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
A transmitter that connects a wireless broadband network is visible on the roof of the Murray City School District office on Thursday, Jan.14, 2021. The district is the first in the nation to create and launch its own wireless broadband network for students.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“My dream is over the next four years every student in our state will have access, in their home, to a device and high-speed internet so that they can have these educational opportunities,” Cox said.

Dickson shares Cox’s concern about bridging that gap and said broadband internet connectivity was no longer a perk but a necessity for every household.

“Broadband is something we must think about as an essential utility,” Dickson said. “It’s an opportunity, regardless of demographics, for families to access medical care, mental health support, housing and employment.

“This is about education but it’s also about our families, about our economy and thinking forward and reimagining the role of broadband.”

Dickson noted that a student and their family’s geographic location does play a role in their level of access to robust internet connectivity, but socioeconomic conditions were an even more relevant indicator.

“A person’s economic status seems to equal their broadband access,” Dickson said.

Dickson said Utah has been ahead of the education technology curve for years, in large part thanks to the work of the Utah Education Network, which also assisted Murray School District in getting its wireless network off the ground. That preparation has, she said, helped state educators and their students weather the impacts of COVID-19 better than most. But, she said addressing ongoing equity issues will require a continued effort and vision on behalf of state leaders.

“Utah has a long record of investing in technology and that really helped us be more prepared for the pandemic than any other state,” Dickson said. “I think what the pandemic has done is shine not just a spotlight, but stadium lights, on issues of equitable access when it comes to broadband internet.”