Remote learning continues to be out of reach for millions of students who lack a reliable internet connection at home. But that doesn’t have to be a permanent reality, and efforts are already underway to ensure that it isn’t.
Achieving universal broadband access would cost billions of dollars and will likely take time to build the infrastructure and political will to make it happen. It’s also tricky because there’s not a single obvious solution to the problem, but rather a menu of options, many of which could be implemented simultaneously.
Still, public support for bolder efforts is strong—a recent poll by the Internet Innovation Alliance and Morning Consult found that 60 percent of Americans believe Congress should take immediate action on closing broadband access gaps, and 95 percent of Americans believe internet access for students and teachers is a problem.
Pockets of progress have popped up in recent months, and ideas for addressing the digital divide range widely. Here’s a look at the techniques schools and governments can employ to address one of the critical civil rights issues in America today. (For more on the urgency of the problem and the necessity for innovative solutions, read my essay in Education Week’s new BIg Ideas special report.)
Equipping School Buses With Wi-Fi
Schools place Wi-Fi access points atop school buses and position the vehicles throughout the district. Families can drive or walk students to those access points, where they can work on school assignments during the day.
Pros: Some districts are required to keep bus drivers employed even while school buildings are shut down and most students don’t need transportation; this approach gives them something to do. Students and parents don’t have to get involved with any complicated technology to get connected, and they can congregate in small groups rather than all convening at school buildings.
Cons: Students in families without cars, or whose parent/guardian isn’t available to drive them during school hours, lose out on this opportunity. The Philadelphia school district pulled back on efforts to allow students to connect to the internet from parking lots after parents raised concerns about the safety of their children in neighborhoods with high crime rates.
Distributing Broadband Directly to Families
Schools across the country have distributed portable “Mi-Fi devices,” which offer broadband connectivity to families who otherwise couldn’t access remote learning. Some districts, like Billings in Montana, are footing the monthly bill for some families’ internet service plans. In Chicago, a $50 million public-private partnership announced in June aims to get 100,000 K-12 students connected by directly paying for service to those households, and D.C. has pledged to pay up to 25,000 households’ Internet bills for at least a year.
Pros: The Mi-Fi devices are fairly cheap, user-friendly, and easily transportable. Families struggling to afford internet access get a much-needed boost to their finances during very difficult economic times.
Cons: Many hotspot providers have already sold out their existing stock, and demand remains high, which means delays are likely for families in need. School districts are also facing unprecedented budget cuts that will put a major dent in their ability to pay for new services, even vital ones.
Offering Government Funds to Districts
Several states, including Colorado and Ohio, have allotted big chunks of money for districts to apply for grants they can use for ordering more hotspots, setting up Wi-Fi access points, or otherwise enhancing their students’ ability to connect to the internet for school purposes. The Federal Communications Commission recently opened a new round of applications for its E-rate program, which offers schools money to enhance the strength of internet connections in their facilities.
Pros: Internet access is an urgent civil rights issue, and the government has a moral duty to address longstanding needs and expand access however possible.
Evan Marwell, executive director of Education SuperHighway, a nonprofit that helps schools get internet access, believes there’s pragmatic value in assigning schools, districts, and even cities to pay for households’ internet access. Service providers will be more willing to offer cheaper rates if they’re providing internet service in bulk to thousands of households, rather than one household at a time, Marwell said.
“Given the situation we’re in today, it is actually our responsibility to make sure students have internet access at home,” Marwell said. “Every school board and superintendent should really be thinking about this issue along those lines.”
Cons: The funds don’t always end up where they’re supposed to be—as of August, Pennsylvania’s governor hadn’t yet allocated to districts federal funds that were designated for expanding broadband for schools. State and local governments’ budgets are hurting as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to depress the economy. Grant applications take time and resources for schools to complete.
Building a Statewide Network
Maryland has announced plans to hire a nonprofit to study and build a broadband network that would be free to K-12 students and available by next fall. Similar statewide efforts are underway in places like Kentucky. The Maryland effort is focusing on underserved rural communities, and officials have said the network would likely not extend to household members who aren’t K-12 students—though it’s not clear how that distinction would be achieved.
Cons: Efforts to get rural students connected threaten to leave out non-rural families who don’t have access, often because they can’t afford the available plans in their areas.
Using Free and Reduced Meal Lists to Identify Need/Automatically Enroll Families
Low-income families who participate in free and reduced meal programs likely would also benefit from low-cost internet options, and might not necessarily know where to look for them. One effort, proposed by the California state government’s Digital Divide Task Force, would automatically place families enrolled in meal programs on a list of people who need low-cost internet at home. A further step, the task force said, would be for schools to negotiate with area internet providers to ensure that families on those lists automatically enroll in the most affordable option when they seek internet service from that company.
Pros: Another impediment to achieving universal connectivity is the lack of clear, easily accessible information for households deciding how to get home internet service. With this approach, families wouldn’t have to do any extra work to get the connectivity help they need.
Cons: Schools are already stretched thin, particularly without additional federal aid for dealing with COVID-19. Putting the onus on schools to keep track of families’ internet access gaps could pile on additional challenges.
Providing Internet Access From School Buildings to Surrounding Neighborhoods
Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel has proposed using the existing federal E-rate program to allow schools to beam internet access from their buildings to surrounding neighborhoods. But FCC chair Ajit Pai has rejected the proposal, arguing that current law restricts the program from extending beyond physical classrooms. Roughly three dozen senators this month renewed the push for the current law to change.
Pros: The infrastructure to pull off this project already exists, and many schools are already familiar with the basics of the E-rate program.
Cons: The idea is unlikely to gain traction without a new FCC chairman; Pai’s current term is set to end in 2022.
Put It on the Ballot
Residents in Denver will vote during this election cycle on whether to overturn an existing law that prevents the local government from constructing a public alternative to the private broadband networks offered by Comcast and Centurylink, among others.
Pros: Getting buy-in from the public provides a strong foundation for lawmakers to take bold action on addressing internet access gaps.
Cons: Numerous cities in Colorado have already codified exemptions to the statewide ban on public internet offerings—but few have actually followed through on creating a new network, either because they haven’t been able to determine the feasibility or they haven’t sensed strong enough political will to start an ambitious project.
Use the Postal Service
A 2013 study by the Post Office Inspector General raised the possibility that the U.S. Postal Service could expand broadband access in rural areas, in keeping with its centuries-long tradition of establishing communication links between far-flung areas of the U.S. Under the proposal, telecommunications companies would build broadband networks for post offices to strengthen their operations and simultaneously spread connectivity to nearby households.
Pros: The Postal Service is among the nation’s most enduring institutions, and its existing mission dovetails nicely with the more modern push for universal connectivity.
Cons: The 2013 report fell short of endorsing the plan, and it doesn’t appear to have progressed in the years since. The Postal Service has been under increased scrutiny in recent months over concerns about its financial health and vulnerability to political tampering, which means a bold new initiative isn’t likely a high priority.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.