Jul 22 2022

K–12 Districts Are Using Internet Failover Solutions to Strengthen Networks

After tackling home connectivity challenges during the pandemic, some schools are reinforcing their on-premises access.

Today, interactive textbooks, digital whiteboards and other tech-focused learning tools are in heavy rotation in K–12 schools, making continuous connectivity in the classroom a must.

To ensure students and teachers can access online resources without interruption, some schools have instituted failover solutions for their principal networks, says Derrick Frost, senior vice president of operations and general manager of private wireless at Kajeet, which supplies wireless connectivity solutions to school districts and other organizations.

“Wireless LTE and 5G services complement existing fiber and Ethernet connectivity services schools have,” Frost says. “A backup also provides a different point of access into the network for security reasons, in case you can’t get in through the primary means. It’s just good best practice to always have backup connectivity in place.”

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Specific Hardware and Software Can Assist 5G Backup Internet in Schools

With reasonably easy installation, 5G service can be a cost-efficient, effective option to reinforce schools’ main networks, according to Tony Dolezal, 5G and multiaccess edge computing strategist for Verizon Public Sector.

“5G can provide backup for any digital circuit, fiber or cable,” Dolezal says. “The high speed and low latency attributes of 5G better emulate these landline circuit technologies.”

To implement a 5G solution, a strong on-premises router can be key, according to Frost, who says Kajeet often installs a Cradlepoint device that integrates into a school’s land network.

“We’ll typically install two SIMs into that device, one from AT&T and one from Verizon,” he says. “Whichever has the best connectivity — it depends, geographically, on who has the best service going into that site — we’ll keep that activated as the primary backup. If the customer has an issue with the main ethernet fiber network, the router will automatically detect that and fail over to the wireless connectivity.”

EXPLORE MORE: Could EVPN-VXLAN benefit your school district's infrastructure?

According to Frost, schools ideally will have devices that support both wireline and wireless connectivity and private networks, since networks on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) — a radio frequency spectrum band that can be used for shared wireless broadband — are becoming more prevalent.

“A lot of the school districts are building their own network for private wireless,” he says. “So, you’d want to have devices that can support the particular spectrum band, CBRS Band 48, that allows them to fail over to their own network.”

Frost suggests trying to incorporate monitoring capabilities into efforts to ensure network connectivity in schools, potentially through a solution that also includes website filtering and other access controls.

“You want to have a platform that allows you to manage those devices so you can see clearly how they are performing,” he says. “You want to know when your network fails over.”

Available Failover Fixes Include Routers and Structural Policies

Connectivity providers have introduced a number of items that can help K–12 districts enhance reliable online access, ranging from SonicWall’s firewall-based failover service to Opengear units that bounce to cellular networks when necessary.

Some schools, Frost says, are using the private LTE backup service Kajeet offers for failover connectivity.

“Essentially, that allows us to install a router on the school property that is connected to their Ethernet or fiber network,” he says. “If that Ethernet or fiber connection goes down, it automatically routes the traffic over the wireless network.”

School systems including the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) in California have explored other resiliency options.

After finding that personal hotspots didn’t always offer enough robust access in areas with sparse cell towers, FUSD created its own private LTE network during the pandemic by mounting transmitters on top of 15 school buildings and distributing Cradlepoint R500 devices to students to use with Lenovo laptops.

Philip Neufeld
Now, we’ll have a fiber cut and, except for the IT folks working to get it solved, no one else knows about it because everything stays up.”

Philip Neufeld Executive Officer of IT, Fresno Unified School District

While that network helps provide reliable external connectivity for students inside its school buildings, the district uses an infrastructure-based approach, says Philip Neufeld, executive officer of IT for the district.

FUSD’s education center, schools and service center, where the nutrition and transportation departments are located, are connected via a fiber ring architecture, a large circular core system with subrings.

If an issue occurs between two locations on the leased dark fiber network the district uses as a primary connectivity method, the signal is simply redirected, Neufeld says.

“High school A can still talk to high school B by going all the way around the ring,” he says. “It used to be, ‘Our fiber got cut by the carrier. It’s going to be down for three, maybe five days. School can’t operate right now; kids can’t learn.’ Now, we’ll have a fiber cut and, except for the IT folks working to get it solved, no one else knows about it because everything stays up.”

KEEP READING: Discover Philip Neufeld's CoSN presentation on connectivity's role in digital equity.

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