In the Spring of 2020, COVID-19 caused school closures across the nation and the world. School districts had to rapidly shift from an in-person model to an online, learn-from-home model that was unfamiliar to most and heavily dependent on the technical infrastructure available in communities and the resources of individual households. Schools are now looking to reopen in the coming weeks with a hybrid model of in-person classes and remote learning, but no one is certain what that will look like and how long it will last.
In a country with 13,000 school districts, 2,600 accredited colleges and universities, and millions of students spanning all ages, backgrounds, demographics, geographies, and income levels, nationwide migration to online learning has proven to be a herculean task as there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Regardless of a particular school’s online learning platform, there are two key factors in a positive and engaging online educational experience: Bandwidth and high-speed internet connectivity.
Digitized Education Depends on Accessibility
Even before the pandemic, the adoption of digital educational resources was on the rise. COVID-19 has quickly and substantially accelerated the adoption of online learning software, including language apps, virtual tutoring, and video conferencing tools. At the same time, this new reliance on remote learning and online classes has exposed our deep digital divide.
Unfortunately, many Americans don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. This is due in part to economic inequality, but geographical discrepancies in high-speed internet availability also play a major role. In the current situation, this digital divide feeds directly into an educational divide. If a particular school district is wired for high-speed internet, and the students enjoy high-speed internet at home, shifting to remote learning is a smooth transition. If, on the other hand, the school district’s internet infrastructure is outdated, and students have limited access to high-speed internet at home, then both educators and students are at a distinct disadvantage.
High-speed internet connectivity, often referred to as broadband, is currently defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as having speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and 3 Mbps for uploading. Internet connectivity that falls below this threshold is generally unsuitable for online learning. Poor internet performance, caused by insufficient speeds, will only worsen as multiple users log on at once. In such circumstances, poor internet performance makes it impossible for teachers to use modern, data-intensive digital technologies, and students can’t effectively engage with the course material, instructors or each other.
According to the most recent figures available from the FCC, roughly 18 million Americans lack access to broadband internet. However, this number is very likely underreported due to the FCC’s reporting methods; if an internet service provider (ISP) provides broadband internet to just one household in a census block, the FCC counts the entire census block as broadband-connected. BroadbandNow, an advocacy organization that tracks internet performance and connectivity across the country, claims an accurate count is closer to 42 million.
Simply put, too many American students lack sufficient internet connectivity needed to participate in online schooling or utilize broadband-dependent digital resources. Education Superway, a non-profit organization specializing in the removal of broadband roadblocks for schools and enablement of digital learning in underserved areas, estimates there are about 9 million American students without access to high-speed internet. Roughly 80% of these 9 million students live in rural areas.
The Rural Connectivity Divide in Education
Even before the pandemic, there was a significant digital divide between rural students and their urban or suburban peers. However, missing out on streaming video is a lot different from missing out on an education. Online learning is no longer a supplement to traditional in-person instruction–it is replacing it entirely for the foreseeable future. When the pandemic is over and students eventually do return to classrooms, it is very likely that online learning and digital resources will play a much more important role in our education system than it did before COVID-19 struck. Where does that leave rural students?
Unfortunately, providing broadband to rural areas is more complicated than simply subsidizing network providers or funding large public works projects to connect these communities. Broadband requires fiber-optic cables to transmit data, which are far more expensive than the copper wires used for telephone service and electricity. They also must be run underground, making it much more difficult to wire an area than simply stringing copper wires across wooden poles.
Many rural communities are so dispersed that connecting them via underground cables would be unfeasible. Geography is also an obstacle. Mountainous rural areas such as Appalachia have rocky terrains that would be very challenging to dig up and run a network of cables under. Other areas are often very cold and the ground could be frozen for half the year or more. In other words, the challenges associated with installing the infrastructure required to provide high-speed internet connectivity are very real and seemingly intractable.
The Good News
In addition to a number of non-profits like BroadbandNow and Education Superhighway, the FCC and some members of Congress are actively attempting to close connectivity gaps in education in the face of COVID-19. The FCC has released its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which allocates an additional $20.4 billion to expand broadband infrastructure to rural areas where it is not yet widely available. FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, has also stated that the FCC should use its power to provide schools with mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for students who lack reliable internet access at home. Sixteen US senators also support this effort.
The FCC has also taken steps to remove regulatory barriers preventing TV whitespace (TVWS) from being utilized on a large scale in rural areas. TVWS refers to the unused white space between active channels on the VHF and UHF spectrum. This space can be used to deliver broadband internet, eliminating the challenges of laying physical, fiber optic cables.
Colocation is Key
Colocation data center providers, such as Netrality, serve as points of presence (POPs) for both urban and rural broadband providers so they may expand their networks to underserved markets. By processing data at the edge – the periphery of the network closest to users – the amount of data flowing to and from core networks is significantly reduced. This gives school districts much greater bandwidth and capacity, ultra-low latency, reduced transport costs, and increased data security.
One of Netrality’s core missions has always been improving rural broadband accessibility, as we did when communications company Chariton Valley selected two of our facilities to further broaden their broadband service to rural areas. Other Netrality ecosystem partners, including Net Vision, Liberty Connect, and Sho-Me Technologies are also actively expanding high-speed internet services to rural communities. Finally, Netrality has also committed a total of $100,000 to charitable organizations such as food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and education programs for underprivileged children in all of the areas where we operate.
Netrality is proud to help enable the connectivity school districts and educational institutions need to provide a digital, 21st-century education to today’s students. Contact us for more information.