PITTSBURG, Kan. — Pittsburg Community Schools this week secured additional funding from the State of Kansas and the City of Pittsburg to set up a new wireless broadband network, which the school district has dubbed “DragonNet.”
“These are exciting times. I can’t wait to see it up and running,” PCS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Brad Hanson said at this week’s school board meeting. “We’re providing internet for educational purposes for students that work with our devices.”
Last month, the Pittsburg Community Schools Board of Education approved $260,000 in funding for a private 4G LTE network that would bring a high-speed, secure Wi-Fi connection into the homes of students without internet access.
At the time, Hanson said that the district hoped to get more funding as soon as possible, since officials had originally asked the state for $2.5 million to get the project off the ground.
The initial funding came from Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) funds with $100,000 granted in the first round of SPARK for a trial of the program. The additional $160,000 came from SPARK 2— the second round of Kansas’ COVID-19 relief funding — under the Broadband Partnership Adoption Grant program, which was specifically designed to help provide internet to families in need.
However, after a month of conversations with the state’s Department of Commerce, PCS now has a total $1.2 million to put towards the broadband network thanks to the help of additional state COVID-19 relief funds and the City of Pittsburg,
“It was waiting a game,” Hanson said. “Waiting on the state, I have to say they don’t move very, very quickly.”
Hanson and Superintendent Richard Profitt attended the Pittsburg City Commission meeting on Tuesday night to talk about the project and ask for an additional $100,000 in funding. The commission has been supportive of the project, and Mayor Dawn McNay said she thought this would help a lot of kids in the community.
“I think we would all be surprised by the number of kids that go to the library to access internet,” she said. “And this will help to, you know, provide that ability in their own home to do their homework and things like that.”
The Commission approved the funding unanimously, which will be coming out of the public safety and utilities budgets.
While the biggest challenge was certainly acquiring the funds to make DragonNet a reality, the project now has another challenge: time.
All funding from the state has to be spent by Dec. 30, meaning that those involved only have 31 business days to get the project off the ground.
“That creates some serious pressure on us to be able to get the infrastructure in place,” said Pittsburg Deputy City Manager Jay Byers.
However, Hanson believes that, weather permitting, the network should be able to get off the ground by then, with Motorola scheduled to begin installation of the towers on Dec. 1.
The initial four tower locations identified for the project were the north water tower at 18th and Joplin, Memorial Auditorium, the south water tower at Madison and Joplin and Lakeside Elementary, with two more towers planned to be built at Schlanger Park and Fire Station #1 on West 4th Street.
Once up and operational, the network will be able to service hundreds of homes, and applications for the network opened this week.
“We put out the application today at 1:30 p.m. and already in the first three or four hours we already have 25 applicants,” Hanson said Tuesday. “I think we’ll have well over 500 applicants for this.”
Access to the network will be granted to families based on “both financial need, as well as families who currently do not have access to quality, unlimited internet service” and only PCS registered devices—Chromebooks, iPads, etc.— will be able to access the network.
Hanson said the project will be up and fully operational by January. In response to a question from McNay, Hanson said the project’s success will be judged on whether it can provide equal internet access for students in the school district so that they can all be on the same level in terms of access to online learning tools.
“Success is us leveling the playing field,” he said. “We allow all students to have the same opportunity. Then, ultimately, if kids are succeeding in the classroom then that’s how you truly measure success.”