New idea to spread internet access in rural areas: Drones

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — Students in northern Wisconsin school district without reliable home internet will soon be able to connect to their school networks via a drone-powered cellular signal.

The project comes from a Wisconsin startup via a state-funded pilot program in the Eagle River area. Wisconsin Public Radio reports the goal is to test the use of drones as a way to expand internet connectivity into rural areas.

The partnership is between the new company, Wisconsin Telelift, and the Northland Pines School District. The drones will be fitted with cellphone towers that let students throughout the district get online — even in areas where cellphone service and broadband access are spotty.

Internet access is a difficult issue in the district, which spreads across 435 square miles in Vilas and Oneida counties. School administrator Scott Foster says up to 15% of the district’s 1,300 students just don’t have it at home. Half don’t have it reliably.

The drone idea is based on new technology that makes it possible for the drones to remain aloft for days and weeks at a time. It takes so much energy to do that that the drones rely not on battery power but on a power cord tethered to a power source on the ground.