When 16-year-old Sergio Duran Jr wants to do his homework every night, he leaves his family’s mobile home in the desert of the Coachella Valley, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, California. He walks five minutes down the dusty road, to a grove of palm trees, where he finds a school bus parked there by his local school district. Plopping down on the ground next to the bus, Duran pulls out an Apple iPad — also provided by the school district — and connects to the wi-fi that’s streaming from inside the bus.
This is his only reliable internet connection. And without this bus, getting his homework done every day would be a monumental task. Because even if schools provide pupils with state-of-the-art, handheld, connected technology, what good is it if they can’t use it at home?
It’s not that Duran doesn’t have internet access at home. It’s that the service is extremely unreliable. And he is far from alone.
What good is [a free iPad] if they can’t use it at home?
You see, the Coachella Valley Unified School District, where Duran lives, is one of the poorest counties in the United States: 95% of the district lives below the national poverty level. Many of Duran’s fellow pupils, he says, live in similar circumstances. There’s a single internet connection that’s shared by a whole slew of family members: cousins, uncles — some living under the same roof, some nearby — and neighbours, too. It gets so congested that it often slows to a halt. And those are the times when service is not available at all.
“During the summer for an entire week, there was no internet,” says Duran. “I was taking a computer class and I would have homework and projects I needed to take home and that was extremely difficult. I had to take my cousin’s laptop and go to the Starbucks by my school, which is pretty far.”
In 2012, the Coachella school district convinced the local communities to pass a ballot measure that gave them $42 million (£33 million) to put iPads in the hands of every one of their 20,000 pupils. They thought they would finally be able to bring their kids into the 21st century by upgrading their entire technological system, including building their own high-speed network and turning their classrooms digital.
Pupils would use digital textbooks and educational apps — like Edmodo, which is the high school equivalent of chat room client Slack — on their iPads. The pupils would take the devices home to complete and file assignments. But once that was all in place, the lack of home-based internet access revealed itself. Pupils were required to digitally file their homework via their iPads at night once it was finished. But for many of them, that was simply not possible.
“We had parents coming in tears saying, ‘Please help us, they can’t use their iPads after hours,’” said Dr Darryl Adams, the district’s Superintendent and the creator of the plan. “We had [many families living in] a lot of trailer-home parks. Some are dilapidated. There is no fibre running through those mobile parks. And so we wanted to ensure that no child was left offline.”
Despite its shiny new iPads, the school district was still in one of the lowest income areas in America. Of their 20,000 pupils, 98% are Hispanic, 60% are English-as-a-second-language learners, and the district estimates that as many as 12% of their pupils are undocumented immigrants. Providing the pupils with technology was meant to improve their education, but the lack of connectivity outside of the school meant they might as well not have had it at all.
I said, ‘Let’s put routers on the buses.’ Not only could students use it on the way to school, we can park those buses in their neighbourhoods. Their connectivity doesn't have to end at 3 o'clock.
“I said, ‘Let’s put routers on the buses.’ Not only could students use it on the way to school, we can park those buses in their neighbourhoods. Their connectivity doesn't have to end at 3 o'clock. They can use it after hours,” said Adams. The cost of wiring the buses, he said, turned out to be surprisingly affordable, and they had only used half their allotted money buying the iPads and wiring their schools. “We would put a router on a pigeon if we have to. This is so important. Students have to be connected. Can you imagine a day without connectivity?”
Since the program has spread through the Valley, the school district has narrowed in on each individual pupil that needs access. They have expanded beyond their own vehicle fleet — they’re wiring up salvaged cars and non-school buses in an attempt to create as many hotspots as possible. “Even if there’s only one home in a far region, we want to make sure all students are connected,” Duran says. The buses — which are the same ones that take pupils to school — are sprinkled throughout the community, from playgrounds to empty lots in mobile home parks. The vehicles that participate in the free wi-fi program sport logos on their sides for quick identification.
And what they’ve found is that the connectivity isn’t just helping the pupils. Though the hot spots are password protected, pupils are sharing the access with family members. Many families, he says, are using the access to learn English, do their CVs, and complete daily work. The district is even using the connectivity to help their pupils become US citizens.
The hardware to make these moveable wireless-hotspots is provided by a company called Cradlepoint. When it comes to connecting the internet to a moving vehicle, using a cable to do that is simply impossible.
“That mobility aspect is a huge driver in the industry, and a huge driver in social behavior, in how we work and play,” says Ian Pennell, chief marketing officer for Cradlepoint, the company enlisted to supply the hardware for the program’s moveable wireless-hotspots. The equipment is designed to hold up to anything nature could throw at it: extreme temperature, humidity, shock vibration, dust, and moisture. It’s a small industry, with only about three companies competing for a huge market. Cradlepoint, for example, now has 1.4 million connection points and about 25% of those are in transportation.
Coachella Valley has seen big changes since their iPads and mobile hotspots started rolling through their district. According to Adams, before the technology plan became effective, the district’s graduation rate was 70%. Now, he says, it’s 84%, which is higher than the national US average (which is currently 73% for Hispanics and 80% overall).
“More significant, student engagement is just off the charts. Our attendance rates are at an all time high: 98% of kids come to school every day. That’s unheard of, especially in a low-income district,” he says. The US national average for daily attendance is 92%. The rate of change since the whole technology program has put into place has Adams now fielding regular phone calls from school districts around the country (as well as large universities and even the US Navy) asking for advice about how to their own programs up and running.
Sergio Duran says that he’s planning to study engineering or science when he goes to college in a few years (he’s considering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley). And though he’s only had access to the school bus wi-fi in his neighbourhood for about a year, he says that being able to use the internet in high school, just like his future peers, will give him a leg up on not just succeeding but also on simply fitting in.
“I wouldn’t be able to transition [as easily],” he says, imagining his future. “It would seem awkward if I was working with a group of people and they’re pulling out their laptops and I’m pulling out my journal.” But it’s not just the wi-fi that makes him feel hopeful for the future, he says, it’s the whole program: “I think knowing that there is this little area right here that’s just desert, desert, desert... it helps a lot that we have something special, something unique.”
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.