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Can K-12 districts really bring broadband to the community?

How K-12 school districts can help extend broadband access to their surrounding communities

community-broadbandWhen it comes to providing free broadband access, most communities are far more likely to consider their local coffee shop over their school district, but in reality such institutions can serve as the vital link between high-speed internet capabilities and those families and students who may not have such access at home. And while many Americans do have high-speed broadband at home, such capabilities are not ubiquitous. In fact, according to the FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report, approximately 55 million Americans (17 percent) live in areas unserved by fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband or higher service.

“That gap closed only by three percentage points in the last year,” the FCC points out in the report, leading them to conclude that broadband simply isn’t making its way to all corners of the country as quickly as we might hope. According to the FCC, a digital divide persists between urban and non-urban parts of the country. “While we have made concerted efforts, particularly through the Connect America Fund, to shrink this gap, we have not eliminated it yet.”

Driving the Need for Reliable Broadband

Michael Flood, vice president of strategy at Bethesda, Md.-based wireless provider kajeet, says K-12 students who lack adequate access risk being left out of the digital transformation that’s taking place on the educational front. “Teachers expect students to be able to work online at home, be it for basic research, project creation, or another function,” says Flood. “They aren’t sending pupils home and asking them to do projects on the civil war using a set of encyclopedias; they want students to be able to tap into a wealth of resources. Those resources are generally found online.”

Next page: Strategies for districts

For those students without reliable broadband, doing homework could require a trip to the local library or a Starbucks to gain access. “We’ve heard stories about library lines where students had to wait until 10pm at night to get on a computer and start their homework,” says Flood. “That’s just crazy, and a definite disadvantage.” The challenge exacerbates when more project-based and collaborative learning are integrated into the K-12 experience, says Flood, who sees online communication and collaboration (among students, between students and teachers, etc.) becoming increasingly important in the educational setting. This, in turn, will further drive the need for reliable broadband.

Acknowledging the fact that there are differing schools of thought on whether a lack of broadband indeed puts students at a learning disadvantage, Flood says it’s still the “local school system’s job to bridge that gap.” And while a few leading schools have already begun bridging that gap, those that have done so tend to be the “outliers” and don’t necessarily represent the larger population of K-12 institutions in the U.S. Flood does see a growing interest in building personalized, ubiquitous, always-available learning environments, but admits that there are a number of hurdles for schools to jump in order to achieve that goal.

For starters, Flood says districts need a cohesive digital strategy that has the buy-in of the district’s senior leadership team. “The entire superintendent’s staff – and anyone who is working under it – has to be onboard with a common digital strategy,” says Flood, who sees more districts (but not all of them) moving in this direction.

“If the school’s digital strategy is based on a student being able to pull out a device and get online anywhere – and not just in school – then the next question is, can every pupil do that?” Flood explains. “If they can’t, then there’s your gap. That’s the piece you have to address.”

As the next step in addressing that issue, districts need an on-campus network that’s robust enough to support every student device all the time. This point can be particularly onerous for districts whose on-campus networks aren’t strong enough to handle this task. “In many cases, networks still aren’t robust enough, ubiquitous enough, or lack the speed necessary to handle the school’s requirements, let alone those of the surrounding community,” Flood points out, noting that districts with on-campus connectivity challenges will generally be reluctant to allocate resources to off-campus connectivity initiatives.

Finally, Flood says students must be equipped with the necessary devices, be it via school-funded or bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives. He sees districts taking both approaches, and notes that purchases of Chromebooks and related devices – and the rollout of BYOD programs – are both on the rise right now. “Once you have those prerequisites in place, the teaching and learning begin to transform,” says Flood, “because teachers know that their students have access to digital tools and broadband when they leave school.”

Providing Wi-Fi Everything: Fact or Fiction?

The typical K-12 district isn’t in the position to start installing Wi-Fi hotspots all over town, so the question is: How can it provide Wi-Fi everywhere in a way that reaches those students who need it? “You can’t just start throwing equipment on every utility pole,” says Flood, who sees mobile broadband networks as a more viable choice. A portable Wi-Fi hotspot, for example, allows multiple users to get online via a private network that can be managed and overseen by an instructor. Flood sees this option as particularly applicable for schools that are investing in thousands of Chromebooks that, for budgetary reasons, lack embedded LTE (a 4G mobile communications standard) capabilities.

To districts that want to “fill the gap” by expanding broadband to their communities, Flood says partnering up with other entities is a good move that could help take some of the pressure (financial, resource, and time-wise) off the district itself. “We’ve seen a number of library systems providing broadband access, and we’ve also heard about possible new federal programs that would potentially use lifeline funds (a program that provides discounts on monthly telephone service for eligible subscribers) for broadband access,” says Flood. “Those are potentially big programs that could help in terms of offsetting the cost to the school.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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