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Education: Access to mobile WiFi hotspots is vital

Remember bookmobiles — the large vans many libraries used to employ to serve rural residents?

More widespread access to personal vehicles and, of course, limited funds prompted the abandonment of many mobile libraries — but the idea may have merit in the digital age.

Millions of Americans are not connected to the networks needed to provide them with high-speed access to the internet. That deprives them of a service — almost a utility, these days — many people take for granted.

Children are a special concern. Most teachers have found ways to augment other educational activities by using the internet. But that is a challenge for students who don’t have computers at home or internet service.

With schools throughout the country closed because of COVID-19, that has become a serious problem. Many teachers have found ways to stay connected with students, through the internet. A variety of internet-based education tools are available, but they are of no use to children who cannot access them at home.

Many school systems have begun providing laptop computers to students, but they are of little value unless they can be connected to the internet.

Some education administrators have found a way to deal with the problem: mobile WiFi hotspots. They are school buses or other vehicles equipped with wireless networking equipment and driven to areas lacking in-ground digital infrastructure for a few hours each day.

Students in their homes know what times of the day the vehicles are in their areas, and can connect via the mobile hotspots.

But mobile hotspots are not cheap. And they are only a bridge to fulltime, wired internet service to homes.

Still, as bookmobiles were to libraries, they are a vast improvement over no access.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, want the Federal Communications Commission to look into improving internet access through more use of mobile hotspots. Congress and the FCC should look into making it happen.

Not just during a crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak, but in the “normal” future, mobile hotspots could be a valuable asset to millions of Americans.

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