Cradlepoint provides Wi-Fi to first responders and kids during the coronavirus pandemic

The networking provider is assisting healthcare facilities and school districts in their response to COVID-19.

Teenage girl lying on the floor in the living room doing her homework using a laptop computer, low angle, close up

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First responders and healthcare organizations across the world have had to mobilize quickly to address the coronavirus pandemic over the past month, building out mobile command centers, quarantine areas and pop-up testing stations at rapid speed. To help organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross and others, networking provider Cradlepoint has stepped up to provide internet connectivity for those on the frontlines of this global crisis.

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The company has long been a provider for more than 3,000 emergency, police, and fire services but since the coronavirus pandemic morphed into a full-fledged global crisis, it has helped support testing stations, make-shift tents, and field hospitals to treat patients, command centers for first responders, and quarantine centers at major military bases around the country.

Donna Johnson, Cradlepoint's vice president of product and solution marketing, said in an interview that there has been a sharp increase in operations, businesses, emergency responders, and communities in need of rapidly deployable and secure on-site networks that utilize wireless technology including hospitals, retailers, and cities setting up temporary testing stations that use wireless to facilitate appointments. 

Helping first responders 

"Cradlepoint has seen a huge increase in demand from people that would like us to help them solve some networking problems, and the main ones are healthcare providers as well as those on the front lines that are opening up pop-up centers for testing or having to expand clinic capacity or opening quarantine centers," Johnson said. 

"Some of the public safety agencies are having to open up quarantine areas or some are setting up mobile command centers for various reasons, and all of those sites need a network. They need to still be secure, they need to still comply with HIPAA regulations, they need to be high quality, but they don't have time to wait for a wired link to be deployed, even if you could in a parking lot."

SEE: Tips for choosing the best VPN for your needs (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Since the company started 12 years ago, it has done a significant amount of work in the emergency service field because of its expertise with LTE connectivity. The company can connect via wired lines, DSL, MPLS or cable networks, but generally there is at least one LTE cellular link involved and many of its networks have only cellular links.

Over the last couple years, more and more companies have moved to cellular as a connectivity option, and Cradlepoint has done more work with people based inside their vehicles like first responders, police, fire, EMS, or fleets where the only option is cellular. But there has been a significant uptick in demand since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country.

"We are in quite a few police vehicles, fire trucks, and ambulances. That's a normal business for us. What's changed is the need for these more mobile command centers. City officials or first responders who need to set up maybe a quarantine center or are providing security for testing centers or maybe they're doing some form of roadblock. All those types of things that might need additional connectivity beyond what they already have within their vehicles," Johnson said.

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"We do work quite a bit with FEMA already. If a hurricane hits, or tornado, they have the same use. They need to get to that area, and they need to set up a secure network quickly, so we've seen some additional use from them because traditionally they're doing the same thing. They're setting up remote centers in new places across the United States."

The company offers a whole series of products that include complete routers and all the capabilities a router would have including VPN connectivity, a full fire wall, content filtering, direct detection and cellular connectivity, all of which can be powered through an ignition switch in a vehicle. 

Cradlepoint has worked with healthcare organizations across the country to provide instant networks that try to provide the kind of security and bandwidth needed to support a variety of urgent services needed to help those most in need. 

These routers are designed to handle multiple devices, and while performance can range, most come with anywhere from 60 mbps to hundreds of mbps of connection, more than what many people have in their homes or offices. 

They allow first responders to have multiple SSIDs on a network, and Jonhson said the company has seen scenarios in which hospitals can ethernet connect medical equipment, WiFi connect all the doctors or other personnel on the site, and offer public-facing WiFi to the people within the clinic or to guests. 

School bus Wi-Fi networks

In addition to the company's work with first responders, school districts have also been eager to adopt mobile networks now that most children will be attending school from home. 

The move to schooling from home has led to country-wide questions about accessibility considering millions of children do not have access to Wi-Fi or broadband at home. Cradlepoint is now working with school districts to adapt school buses to serve pupils with no at-home internet. 

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"Some kids that have to do homework at home are at a disadvantage because they don't have a good broadband connection in their house. All of this has shaken everything up a bit. It's really brought home some inequities. People with broadband, students with good broadband are able to go home, do their homework, do online learning, but kids without good broadband have been locked out of that," Johnson said. 

"Many of the school districts that we've talked to are concerned about that. They don't want anyone to be left behind. One of the solutions that they've done is installing routers on school buses and then driving that school bus to a neighborhood."

School districts already have had to create programs to deliver lunches to children in need because millions of kids get most of their meals from school and now may go hungry since schools are closed. 

In some districts, the school buses now deliver lunches and then park in the neighborhood so that children can use the WiFi from the bus to access homework or other fun sites while they can. 

SEE: Some U.S. families lack technology needed for online learning during coronavirus pandemic (CBS News)

Student's don't have to be on the bus to use the WiFi, and the networks have the appropriate security measures in place to protect students as well as tools to put in content filtering. 

"Traditionally they've done that to provide WiFi access to students on the drive to school or to school events, so it gave them a chance to do homework while they were on the bus, but now we've seen it addressing the education inequality problem," Johnson added.

"There is a concern in the larger public about some of these kids being left behind so this is an interesting solution that allows school districts to take advantage of existing infrastructure to be able to take care of kids."

The networks are powered from the school bus battery and have the same range as the ones provided to first responders. 

Because all of this is so new, many school districts are still working out schedules, times, and locations of where the buses will stay, but Johnson said that over the last three weeks, there has been a huge uptick in interest because of how quickly these problems need to be solved. More and more school districts are hinting that they may not return to physical school buildings at all this year, so the school bus WiFi option may become integral to keeping kids up-to-date with their classes. 

SEE: New COVID-19 dashboard maps give daily updates on coronavirus impact for every US county and state  (TechRepublic)

While the company generally does not provide networks to individuals and primarily works with enterprises, it has seen a global increase in interest for secure networks that can connect to some employees' homes. In the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, and New Zealand, there has been significant demand, especially in the financial and technology industry, for encrypted or segregated connections.

"The last thing that all these IT teams want is a lot of viruses and malware due to people at home going on risky sites. Since COVID-19 hit, many people are no longer in their facilities, and many people are having to open new facilities. All of a sudden, the landscape has been shaken up," Johnson said.  

"People are needing to have new networks in unusual places or they're at home where maybe their home network wasn't really intended to be a corporate network or it doesn't have the security or bandwidth."

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