Facebook Pilots Free WiFi For Students’ Homes In The Backyard Of Its NC Data Center

Just as the FCC has approved a plan to invest $2 billion into U.S. schools to improve WiFi, Facebook is taking a step to improve WiFi for students in their homes. Today the company is announcing a pilot in North Carolina to provide free WiFi-based internet access to students’ homes. The project, focused around Forest City,  is being rolled out in cooperation with Rutherford County Schools and Pangaea, a non-profit provider of high-speed fiber optic Internet services.

Why Forest City? It’s the site of one of Facebook’s data centers. The first part of the project will cover 75-100 homes.

The initiative comes at the time of another digital divide program in the town hitting a stumbling block. In 2011, the school system introduced a 1:1 initiative to provide a personal laptop to every middle and high school student. “But nearly half of the 6,000 students who have received a laptop do not have Internet access at home,” the company notes.

Enter Facebook and Pangaea.

“One of the pillars of the 1:1 initiative is to ensure equal access to digital information for all students,” said Dr. Janet Mason, superintendent of Rutherford County Schools, said in a statement. “We are thrilled to have partners like Facebook, PANGAEA Internet, and the Town of Forest City who share this vision and are enabling us to take another step toward delivering on our promise. When you can utilize technology to enhance educational opportunities for our county’s young people, everybody wins.”

It’s not clear whether the project will extend to other parts of the U.S. or even to other international centers where Facebook has been building infrastructure. It complements the work that the company has been pushing via the Internet.org project to bridge digital divides and improve Internet access everywhere; and it aligns with Startup:Education, a fund backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to invest in interesting technology initiatives to improve how schools work. (One project, the Education Superhighway, is aimed at helping schools get more familiar with how well their broadband works and how to improve it.) Yes, this is something that makes business sense for the social network, but also is a useful and important example of how tech companies making serious money can use it for something worthwhile.

The pilot begins today, and Facebook says that if the first phase is successful, it will expand the program to cover more students in the school district.

Photo: Rutherford County, Flickr