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NextLight uses LTE private wireless to connect low-income students

Low-income students in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado, will soon have access to free broadband services thanks to a private LTE network deployed by the city’s municipal fiber provider, NextLight.

In 2014 NextLight built a municipal fiber network in Longmont that currently covers 44,000 locations and provides service to around 26,000 customers. Its competitors are broadband providers CenturyLink and Xfinity.

NextLight also provides fiber connectivity for the St. Vrain Valley School District so Longmont and school district officials decided to use funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) to build a private wireless network to provide free broadband service to the 4,000 low-income students in the district. Students that qualify for the service are on the St. Vrain Valley School District’s free and reduced lunch program.

“Part of the vision is to get everyone connected. It’s not about profit, it’s about connections,” said Valerie Dodd, executive director of NextLight.

NextLight used the CARES funding to blanket the city with 38 cell sites using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) General Authorized Access (GAA) spectrum and gear from Baicells. Dennis Pappas, director of fiber network operations at NextLight, said the first phase of the network, which included 23 cell sites, took just 2.5 weeks to get up-and-running.

The network now includes 38 sites, and it covers about 50% to 60% of the 4,000 students that qualify for the free broadband program. NextLight plans to add more sites and more coverage as soon as it can secure more funding.

Pappas added that even though NextLight is a municipal broadband provider, it still had to go through the same permitting process as other telecom providers and had to work with local businesses and building owners to secure locations for its antenna sites. However, he added that since the private wireless network was built with the intention of providing free broadband to low-income students, many building owners were receptive to the project. “Because this isn’t a revenue generating network and something that we are doing for the schools, we didn’t have a problem with the build,” he said.

NextLight determined where to put the Baicells cell sites based upon generalized student location data provided by the school district. “They provided the general locations for students, and we looked at school rooftops, city assets and buildings, and light poles,” Pappas said.

NextLight also worked closely on the network design with Vall Technologies, a Colorado-based private wireless and managed network firm. Ron Valdez, CEO of Vall Technologies, said the average antenna site deployed for the private wireless network is about 30 to 35 feet high. He also said that LTE delivers the necessary amount of bandwidth for students, which is about 50 Mbps. “You have to make a technical case for moving the network to 5G,” he said, adding that the device ecosystem for 5G private wireless isn’t very developed at this point.

Traffic from the CBRS private wireless network is backhauled over the NextLight fiber network.

Currently only “friendly users” are on the private network. The St. Vrain School District will handle distribution of the customer premise equipment (CPEs) and currently has about 500 CPEs ready to distribute.

More applications possible Although Longmont’s private wireless network was built to provide connectivity for students, the city does have plans to use the network as a foundation for some smart city applications as well.

NextLight leaders are cagey about the specific smart city applications they are thinking about but hinted that one potential use case includes deploying security cameras in parks and public spaces for safety.

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