Some Eastern Washington school buses get Wi-Fi hookups

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldApril 26, 2013 

Long commutes to school or sporting events can be tedious for students with nothing to do but look out the window. But that changed for some in five Eastern Washington school districts this year.

A grant enabled the Educational Service District 123 to provide one wireless Wi-Fi modem to Prosser, Prescott, Clarkston, College Place and Pomeroy school districts through the end of the school year.

Each of the districts installed one on their buses to allow students with smartphones and tablets to surf the web, do homework and entertain themselves on long bus rides.

In Prosser, having a Wi-Fi enabled bus has been an overwhelming success, said Superintendent Ray Tolcacher.

The Prosser School District encompasses 622 square miles, which makes for some long bus rides. Some routes take an hour and a half to drive, said Bill Petersen, the district's transportation supervisor.

Petersen and his staff installed the small device on the bus used to transport students daily to Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, for sports trips and other activities away from school.

The district also bought 10 Lenovo tablets at a cost of about $99 each for students who don't have smartphones or tablets to use while riding the Wi-Fi-enabled bus.

"We wanted to show our commitment to the project and make sure we were offering a full meal deal. Wi-Fi is useless without a device to access it," said Tolcacher.

The Wi-Fi access is limited by the district.

"It's as secure as if they were using the internet at school," said Brenda Graham, Prosser's technology director.

Students borrow the tablets from the bus driver. They're kept charged by Prosser's transportation department.

Petersen said the drivers love it.

"They give a tablet to one student and it catches the eye of a minimum of four others. Soon they're sharing, looking over each other's shoulders. It gives the kids something to do on long trips," he said. "They watch movies, look up homework, play games, contact their parents. It's great."

The pilot project has been so successful Tolcacher is looking into buying three to four additional modems for the next school year.

Tolcacher doubts he'll have money to buy more tablets. Graham estimates the modems are about $600 each or less if the district can get a school discount.

"Our concept for next year will be BYOD, "bring your own device." Most kids already have a smartphone anyway and tablets are becoming more common too," Tolcacher said.

The idea of adding Wi-Fi to school buses came from a Wireless Bus Project Team made up of managers from Verizon Wireless, Cradlepoint, Premier Wireless, DeployNet and ESD 123.

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