K12 Education During the Pandemic

Pew Stateline published a recent article talking about the widely disparate state of educating K12 students during the pandemic. Every school system has students without home broadband or home computers and school districts and states are dealing with these issues in widely different ways.

There are major challenges in educating students outside of the classroom. The Stateline article points out that there are issues beyond providing broadband and computers, and that kids still need adults to help direct their learning. But students without computers or broadband have virtually no chance of keeping up in an environment that relies fully or partially on learning from home.

The article cites a recent study by the Annenberg Institute of Brown University that looks at the impact of the pandemic in the spring semester of this year. The study estimates that students returning to school this fall will have only made between 63% and 68% of the expected gains in reading that would normally have been expected from the last school year. Students will only have made between 37% and 50% of the expected gains in math. It’s hard to imagine what happens to current students if virtual or interrupted education carries through much of the current school year. I’ve seen articles where various educators are already calling 2020 a ‘lost year’.

As part of my ongoing work with community broadband, I’ve talked to communities with a wide range of circumstances and proposed solutions. For example, I talked to the school administrator of a small rural school district that has roughly 600 students. The area resides in a broadband desert and most homes have no good home broadband option – even traditional satellite service barely works in the community where homes are nestled into canyons and valleys.

This small school district is trying the full range of solutions we hear from across the country. The district has scrambled to find computers for students that don’t have them at home. The school district has obtained cellular hotspots for many rural students, although there a lot of places in the county with little or no cellular coverage. The local government has tried to fill in the gap in cellular coverage by deploying a number of public hotspots to provide places where students and home workers can find broadband. But probably the most important thing they are doing is that the superintendent of schools called every student in the district and is trying to find individual solutions for students that are having problems learning.

Even with all this effort, the school district acknowledges that this is not a solution that will work with all students and that some students are going to fall far behind. This school district is only able to tackle the above solutions due to the small number of students in the district. It’s hard to imagine how school districts with thousands of students can even attempt to provide individual solutions.

The pandemic has also shown us that ‘normal’ broadband is not adequate for homes with multiple students and adults trying to work from home at the same time. Even expensive cable broadband subscriptions can be inadequate when more than two people try to share the small upload bandwidth. Emergency home and public hotpots share the same problems and can easily get overwhelmed.

I don’t have any proposed solutions for the problem and as a country, we’re going to somehow deal with a whole generation of students that have fallen behind the expected education progression. I do not doubt that when school gets back to normal that many school districts will figure this out.

For now, local communities have to try to take all of the steps needed to at least try to help students. I talked to somebody who does broadband mapping and was surprised to hear that many school districts are just now trying to figure out which students don’t have computers or home broadband. It’s been six months since the start of the pandemic and it’s hard to believe that school districts didn’t gather these basic facts before now.

States and localities everywhere have scrambled to create WiFi hotspots, but nobody should rest on their laurels and think that solves the problem. Many states and localities have used CAREs money to buy computers, and as important as that is, it is only a piece of the solution. I’ve read that school districts scrambled all summer to adapt curriculum to an online format, but that also doesn’t fix the problem. The bare minimum answer is that school districts need to find ways to do all of the above, and more – and even with that students are going to fall behind this school year. But what other choice do we have? As the Stateline article points out, some lucky families will hire tutors to keep students up to speed – but that’s not going to help the vast majority of students in the coming school year.

The Other Homework Gap

I snagged today’s blog title from Christopher Ali, a professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He recently wrote an article for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society that reminds us that there is a second homework gap in addition to the one in K12 schools. There are almost 20 million college and graduate students across the country, most of which have been recently been notified that most or all of the fall semester this year will be done online.

Secondary education has already been in the process of migrating online. Eduventures estimated that the percentage of students already tackling an online degree before the pandemic was 29% of those pursuing an associate’s degree, 42% for a bachelor’s degree, 27% for a master’s degree and 3% of those working towards a doctorate. In the fall of 2020, nearly all secondary students will have some or all of the curriculum online.

Most college and university campuses have good broadband. Most campuses across the country are connected with fiber, coming in part from the effort by the folks at Internet2 which connects 321 universities to transmit data between campuses at gigabit speeds. Most college campuses have good broadband to classrooms, dorms, along with campuswide WiFi that enables students to easily connect to university data networks.

But the pandemic has sent college students home for the fall semester where they will have to take coursework online. Far too many students come from homes without good broadband. We’ve known for years that there are millions of rural homes without good broadband. But it’s easy to forget that 10% to 30% of the homes in various urban markets have no broadband, at home, mostly due to affordability issues. Ali says there are still 42 million Americans without home broadband.

In many states, school systems are finding broadband solutions for K12 students without broadband. Almost every state and county I’ve talked to since the start of the pandemic has one or more programs to connect K12 students. Many are providing cellular hotspots. Unfortunately, this is not always a great solution since many rural homes also don’t have a good cellular signal. Other schools are spreading hotpots around the community so that students can drive or walk to get broadband access. But nobody is making these same efforts for college students. These students are largely on their own, and there is no doubt that the lack of broadband will cause students to drop out of school.

Since broadband research is Ali’s field, he’s sensitive to the plight of his students and has designed a curriculum that will work for students who can get only rudimentary access to broadband. He’s prerecording classes so that students can download files rather than having to make a 2-way video connection. He’s gone old-school and has enabled group chats as a low-bandwidth way to have a dialogue with students.

But most college professors are not accommodating students without broadband. I have a daughter who is a senior at Texas Tech, and she tells me about the challenges of doing classes online. For example, she took a class in American Sign Language in the spring semester which become extremely challenging when moved online in the middle of the semester. Her professor is deaf and all communication during the course is done using sign language – which is hard to make work with twenty students online at the same time. She also has been taking science classes with labs that have been watered down due to going online. There are some aspects of college courses that will never translate well into an online format. It’s hard to picture how students taking a dance class, an anatomy dissection lab, or an advanced electronics lab class can transition easily to online. Some topics require hands-on experience.

At some point we’ll be out of the pandemic and back to normal, whatever that might come to mean. A big concern for universities is that they might lose a substantial portion of their current student population who are unable to keep up online. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, other than perhaps the kinds of steps that Ali is taking to accommodate students with low bandwidth. Universities can’t easily tackle the same solutions as K12 schools because their student base is likely dispersed widely. Universities are scrambling to figure this out, but if they don’t have a broadband contingency plan in place by now it’s too late for this school year.

Digital Inclusion Studies

I’ve been contacted by a number of communities this year that want to talk about finding solutions for homes that don’t have broadband. It’s an interesting phenomenon because policy people have talked about the digital divide for the past twenty years, but I’m getting serious inquiries asking about ways to solve the problem rather than just quantifying the number of homes without broadband. I’m sure part of the reason for this is the realization of the number of homes where students were unable to continue schoolwork at home or where workers couldn’t transition to home due to the lack of broadband, lack of computers, or other reasons.

The first thing I recommend to a community is to identify the primary reasons in their community for why homes don’t have good broadband. There have been studies done over the years that have identified a number of different reasons why homes don’t have broadband. Some of the reasons why homes don’t have broadband include:

  • Some homes can’t afford the price of broadband
  • Some homes can’t afford to buy, maintain, and replace computers.
  • Some people don’t know how to use computers and need training before they are comfortable using a computer and a broadband connection.
  • Some people are intimidated by technology.
  • Some people are worried about security and are afraid of breaches of their privacy.
  • Some people are satisfied with access to the broadband they have at locations outside of the home.
  • Some people are satisfied with the broadband they get using their smartphone.
  • And some people simply have no interest or desire to go online (although this is often a convenient way to not admit some of the issues above).

As you might imagine, the prevalence of these issues differs widely by community. A community can’t start crafting digital inclusion solutions until they understand which of these issues are the primary drivers in their community for why homes don’t have broadband.

The easiest way to quantify the percentage of homes that fit into the various categories is with a well-designed statistically valid survey. To be useful, such a survey will have to be done differently than simple surveys that might measure things like existing broadband penetration rates. Here are a few ideas on how to best conduct this kind of survey:

  • Several studies have shown that most people without home broadband have more than one reason why they don’t have it. A survey ought to ask people to explore all of the reasons why people don’t have home broadband.
  • The survey should then be designed to delve more deeply into the primary reasons somebody doesn’t have broadband. That means a different set of questions would be asked about each of the above reasons why folks don’t have broadband. For example, the survey might dig deeper into the two primary reasons given by each respondent.

The results of this kind of survey is likely going to be eye-opening for most cities. It’s easy for policymakers to have preconceptions about why homes don’t have broadband, and it’s likely that the real issues are different than what policymakers assume.

Another important step in figuring out digital inclusion solutions is to understand where the needs are in a city. I see cities today gathering interesting demographic data that can be mapped. For example, I’ve seen a lot of school systems that have identified the address of every K12 student who doesn’t have adequate broadband or who doesn’t have a home computer. Understanding where these homes are is a needed component to finding a solution. Cities often have access to a wide array of other demographic data that might help to understand where homes most need a broadband solution. It’s hard to know ahead of time which data will be the most useful, but cities have data like a list of homes that qualify for reduced lunch programs, homes that are receiving rent or a housing subsidy, homes that are occupied by the elderly, etc.

After all of this research, the hard work starts to start solving the digital divide. But understanding the primary issues driving lack of access means that programs can be devised to tackle the most important issues first. If the primary driver of home broadband is lack of home computers, then a program to get computers into home will likely be effective. If the primary driver in a community is lack of computer skills, then computer training courses ought to help the most people.

A well-designed digital inclusion study is the first place to start for a community that wants to solve the digital divide. You can’t fix the problems until you’ve identified them.

The Government Needs to Address the Homework Gap

I’ve been at a bit of a loss over the last few days on what to write about, because suddenly newspapers, blogs, and social media are full of stories of how impossible it is for some students to work at home during the Covid-19 shutdowns. I’ve been writing this topic for years and there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can add right now – because the endless testimonials from students and families struggling with the issue speak louder than anything I can say.

There have been some tiny reactions of the federal government to help solve the issue. For example, the FCC removed the E-Rate exemption that said that government-powered broadband couldn’t be used for the general public. This allowed schools and libraries to aim their broadband outside for the general public and for students trying to keep up with homework. This was always a stupid restriction and I hope whatever DC bureaucrat originally dreamed this up is forced to use satellite broadband for the next year.

I’ve also seen notices from small ISPs that are distributing WiFi hotspots to students that need them. That is a great idea and I totally support. What I haven’t seen is anybody talking about who is going to pay the cellular data bills on those hotspots when they come due. Verizon has halped a little by temporarily adding 15 GB of usage to its data plans, but it doesn’t take long to rack up a big cellular data bill working on a hotspot.

These fixes are temporary bandaids. I’m sure any students benefiting by these recent changes are grateful. But it’s still second-class broadband that makes families park in cars while kids do homework. And as much as cellular hotspots are a great solution that brings broadband to the home – it’s also a curse if this brings monthly broadband bills of hundreds of dollars per month just to do homework.

I’m sure that most school systems will somehow slog through the rest of this school year. However, I’ve talked to several rural school administrators in the last week who worry that half of the children working at home are learning little or nothing while at home. I’ve seen school systems already asking if they should push all students to the next grade this year, whether they are ready or not.

The big challenge is going to come if this crisis carries forward into the next school year starting this fall. I doubt that there are many school systems with rural students that are ready to face this for a whole school year. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does then our lack of broadband for students becomes a national shame.

I don’t have many suggested quick solutions that will help the homework gap by the fall. It’s hard to even predict how much fiber construction will be done this summer due to social distancing – likely less than was planned.

One might hope that communities will install many more outdoor-facing hotspots. It would be nice to see these at every government building and at socially-minded businesses everywhere. This is a fix that is within the reach of every community. Any business that has broadband ought to consider sharing it during the times of the day or night when the business isn’t using it. Let’s turn all parking lots for towns of all sizes into WiFi zones.

It would also be nice if the FCC could somehow turn up the pressure on the wireless carriers to provide fixed cellular broadband. This is the technology used by AT&T that beams data using cellular frequencies from cell sites to small dishes at homes. This provides a better indoor signal than regular cellular service, and the cellular companies price this more like a broadband service than cellular service. AT&T has halfheartedly rolled out the product as a way to implement their CAF II obligations – but the word from rural areas is that it’s not marketed and nearly impossible for customers to buy. T-Mobile promised to roll this product out in every rural market as part of the agreement to merge with Sprint and the government needs to hold their feet to the fire to make this happen quickly this year.

Unfortunately, the FCC sabotaged their ability to push for better broadband solutions when they killed Title II authority and stopped regulating broadband. The solution we really need this year is for Congress to resolve the Title II issue once and for all and to make the FCC responsible for finding broadband solutions. Right now everything the FCC says on the topic is rhetoric because they have no power to compel ISPs to do anything. This is no time for politics and rhetoric, but a time for action.

FCC Modifies Lifeline Rules

The FCC released new rules for the Lifeline program in November. These rules will make it harder for some companies to participate in the program, but it opens up the door to many new participants.

The FCC has obsessed for years about fraud in the program. There are numerous cases over the years of the program providing Lifeline subsidies to people who are no longer eligible or who even died. However, a lot of that blame has to placed on the FCC. Carriers have never had any ways to know if Lifeline participant gets a job and is no longer were eligible, or even if the eligible family member dies and the subsidy continues to go to the household. The FCC has finally taken the steps to fix such problems through the creation of the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier – a database updated monthly by government agencies that provide the support that makes participants eligible.

The following new rules are lifted directly from the FCC, which says the new rules will improve the program by:

  • Prohibiting participating carriers from paying commissions to employees or sales agents based on the number of consumers who apply for or are enrolled in the Lifeline program
  • Requiring participating carriers’ employees or sales agents involved in enrollment to register with the program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC)
  • Strengthening prohibitions barring Lifeline providers from claiming “subscribers” that are deceased
  • Taking additional steps to better identify duplicate subscribers, prevent reimbursement for fictitious subscribers, and better target carrier audits to identify potential FCC rule violations
  • Increasing transparency by posting aggregate subscribership data, including data broken out at the county level, on USAC’s website
  • Increasing transparency with states by directing USAC to share information regarding suspicious activity with state officials
  • Restoring the states’ traditional role of designating carriers to participate in the Lifeline program.

One of the requirements is somewhat unusual in that ISPs need to identify those employees responsible for enrolling participants in the Lifeline plan. For most ISPs, that’s going to be the customer service staff. The requirement is a headscratcher because it’s hard to conceive of any possible good way that the FCC can use this information.

The last bullet point highlights an opportunity for ISPs that want to participate in the program. For the last several years it’s been exceedingly difficult for an ISP to enter the Lifeline program. During that same period, we’ve seen big telcos like AT&T withdraw from the plan in most of the states where they operate.

An ISP that wants to offer a low-price broadband product for low-income households can collect the Lifeline subsidy to offset price discounts. For example, an ISP could offer a low-income broadband connection and collect $20 from a customer and also collect the $9.25 Lifeline subsidy from the Universal Service Fund. The Lifeline funds are paid directly to the ISP from the Universal Service Fund.

More importantly, ISPs now can apply to become eligible for Lifeline with state regulators rather than from the FCC – which has been blocking new applications for several years. There is a particularly good opportunity for tribal ISPs since the Lifeline subsidy on tribal lands can be as high as $34.25 per qualified recipient.

Enrolling in the Lifeline program is another tool to help ISPs attack the homework gap. ISPs can use the subsidy to provide lower price broadband to qualifying homes with school students. If an ISP serves customers that qualify for a discount, it’s hard to justify not joining the program and giving such customers a break on rates.

T-Mobile Offering Broadband Solutions

As part of the push to get approval for the proposed merger with Sprint, T-Mobile pledged that it will offer low-cost data plans, give free 5G to first responders and provide free broadband access to underserved households with school students. These offers are all dependent upon regulators and the states approving the merger.

The low-price broadband plans might be attractive to those who don’t use a lot of cellular data. The lowest-price plan offers 2 GB of data for $15 monthly. The price is guaranteed for 5 years and the data cap grows by 500 MB per year to reach 4 GB in the fifth year. The second plan offers 5 GB for $25 and also grows by 500 Mb per year to reach 7 GB by the fifth year. I assume adding voice and texting is extra.

The offer for free phones for first responders is just that. T-Mobile will offer free voice, texting, and data to first responders for 10 years. There will be no throttling of data and data will always get priority. The company estimates that this would save $7.7 billion nationwide for first responders over the ten years if they all switch to T-Mobile. Not surprisingly the other carriers are already unhappy with this offer, particularly AT&T which is busy building the nationwide FirstNet first responder network. This may be a somewhat hollow offer. The FirstNet network has some major advantages such as automatically interconnecting responders from different jurisdictions. But at least some local governments are going to be attracted to free cellular service.

The offer for school students is intriguing. For the next five years, the company is offering 100 GB per month of downloaded data to eligible student households. The company will also provide a free WiFi hotspot that converts the cellular data into WiFi for home use. T-Mobile estimates that roughly 10 million households would be eligible. Studies have shown that cost is the reason that many homes with students don’t have home broadband. In urban areas, the T-Mobile effort could largely eliminate the homework gap, at least for five years. That would give the country five years to find a more permanent solution. While T-Mobile would also help in rural America, many rural homes are not in range of a T-Mobile tower capable of delivering enough broadband to be meaningful. However, in many cases, this offer would be bringing broadband for homework to homes with no other broadband alternatives.

If the merger goes through, T-Mobile plans to mobilize the big inventory of 2.5 GHz spectrum owned by Sprint as well as activating 600 MHz spectrum. These are interesting spectrum, particularly the 600 MHz. This spectrum is great at penetrating buildings and can reach deep into most buildings. The spectrum also carries far, up to 10 miles from a transmitter. However, compared to higher frequencies, the 600 MHz spectrum won’t carry as much data. Further, data speeds decrease with distance from a cell sites and the data speeds past a few miles are likely to be pretty slow.

This plan makes me wonder how allowing millions of students onto the cellular network for homework will affect cell sites. Will some cell sites bog down when kids are all connected to the school networks to do homework?

I further wonder if the promise to offer free broadband to students also comes with a promise to supply enough backhaul bandwidth to poor neighborhoods to support the busy networks. Without good backhaul, the free bandwidth might be unusable at peak hours. I don’t mean to denigrate an offer that might mean a broadband solution for millions of kids – but I’ve also learned over the years that free doesn’t always mean good.

I’ve seen where a few states like New York are still against the merger, so there is no guarantee it’s going to happen. It sounds like the courts will have to decide. I suspect these offers will be withdrawn if the decision is made by courts rather than by the states.

NFL City Broadband

Every few years a large city takes a hard look at the broadband issue and considers building a citywide fiber network to make their city more competitive. A few years ago, San Francisco took a hard look at the issue. Before then, cities like Seattle, Baltimore, Cleveland, and others considered fiber networks.

The latest city that might be joining the fray is Denver where fiber proponents are pushing the City Council to have a 2020 ballot initiative for removing statewide restrictions on municipal participation in finding fiber solutions. Numerous smaller communities in Colorado have already held ballot initiatives that allowed their cities to opt-out of the restriction. Some of those cities have gone on to build fiber networks and others are now studying the issue.

If such a ballot initiative passed it would not necessarily mean that Denver would be considering building a fiber network. Instead, this would remove the restrictions created by a law sponsored by the big incumbent telephone and cable companies that requires a referendum before a city can even have a serious conversation about fiber.

A lot of people probably wonder why a large city would consider building a fiber network. It turns out that many cities have sizable pockets without adequate broadband. There are places in every big city where the cable companies never provided service – often to apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods. I’ve written several blogs about studies that show that AT&T redlined DSL deployment and that numerous poor neighborhoods still can only get DSL with speeds of 3 Mbps or less. I can’t remember any more who made the estimate, but I recall a paper published six or seven years ago that estimated that there were as many people in cities with no good broadband option as there are in rural America.

Even where cities have broadband, the big cities still have digital deserts where whole neighborhoods barely subscribe to broadband because of cost. The city of Buffalo, NY identified that the city has a huge homework gap and found that many students there didn’t have broadband. After some investigation, the city found that there were numerous neighborhoods where only 30 – 40% of residents could afford broadband. Buffalo has begun a program to provide free home WiFi for students, with the first deployment to cover 5,500 homes.

There have been several recent studies that have shown that affordability has become the number one reason why homes don’t have broadband. That issue is about to intensify as all of the big cable companies are starting to raise broadband rates annually. The big cable companies are also tamping down on special pricing that lets many homes get broadband for an affordable rate for a few years. Cities are recognizing that they have to find ways to solve the digital divide because they can see a huge difference between neighborhoods with and without broadband.

No NFL city has yet tackled building a fiber network to everybody, and perhaps none of them ever will. Building a fiber network of that magnitude is expensive and cities like San Francisco and Seattle got estimates of price tags over $1 billion to provide fiber everywhere. All big cities also already have some neighborhoods with fiber, making it harder to justify building fiber everywhere.

However, every big city has neighborhoods with poor broadband options and neighborhoods suffering from a huge homework gap and digital divide because of affordability. I expect more cities are going to tackle initiatives like the one undertaken in Buffalo to find ways to get broadband to those who can’t afford big-ISP prices.

Many cities are restricted from taking a serious look at broadband solutions because of statewide legal restrictions. The Colorado legislation that requires a referendum just to consider a broadband solution is typical of these laws. There are twenty-two states with some sort of restriction on municipal broadband which is intended to stop the cities in those states from looking for solutions.

The bottom line is that the only solutions for the digital divide and the homework gap are going to have to come locally. And that means that cities must be free to look for broadband solutions for neighborhoods that lack broadband options. There have been enough studies that demonstrate that students without home broadband underperform those with broadband in the home. I have no idea if the City Council in Denver is willing to at least tackle the ballot initiative to allow them to talk about the issue – but if they don’t, then their poorer neighborhoods are doomed to remain at a huge disadvantage to the rest the city.

A New National Broadband Plan?

Christopher Terry recently published an article for the Benton Institute that details how the National Broadband Plan has failed. This plan was initiated by Congress in 2009, which instructed the FCC to develop a plan to make sure that every American had access to broadband within a decade. The article details the many spectacular ways that the plan has failed.

In my opinion, the National Broadband Plan never had the slightest chance of success because it didn’t have any teeth. Congress authorized the creation of the plan as a way for politicians to show that they were pro-broadband. The plan wasn’t much more than a big showy public relations stunt. Congress makes symbolic votes all of the time and this was just another gesture that demonstrated that Congress cared about broadband and that also served to quiet broadband proponents for a few years. If Congress cared about broadband they would have followed up the plan with a vote to force the FCC to implement at least some aspects of the plan.

I have no doubt that those who worked to develop the plan are likely offended by my post-mortem of the effort. I know that several people who worked on the plan still prominently display that fact in their resume a decade later. I’m sure that working on the plan was an exhilarating process, but at the end of the day, the effort must be measured in terms of success. The folks that created the plan and the rest of the country were duped by the FCC.

The FCC never had the slightest interest in adopting the big recommendations of the plan. There is probably no better evidence of this when the Tom Wheeler FCC awarded $11 billion to the big telcos in the CAF II process – an award that couldn’t have been more antithetical to the National Broadband Plan. To those that follow FCC dockets, there are dozens of examples over the last decade where the FCC sided with big carriers instead of siding with better rural broadband.

The fact is that the US government doesn’t do well with grandiose plans and lofty long-term goals. Government agencies like the FCC mostly implement things that are mandated by Congress – and even then they often do the bare minimum. Even without the National Broadband Plan, the FCC already has a Congressional mandate to make certain that rural broadband is equivalent to urban broadband – and we annually see them do a song and dance to show how they are complying with this mandate while they instead largely ignore it.

This is not to say that broadband plans are generically bad. For example, the state of Minnesota developed its own set of broadband goals, with the most prominent goal of defining broadband in the state as connections of at least 100 Mbps. The state has implemented that goal when awarding broadband grants, and unlike the FCC, the state has awarded grant funding to build real rural broadband solutions. They’ve refused to spend money on technologies that deliver speeds that the state doesn’t consider as broadband.

I fully expect to hear a plea to develop a new plan and I hope that most of the folks who are working for better broadband ignore any such effort. Compared to ten years ago there are now a lot of organizations working for better broadband. Hundreds of rural communities have created citizen broadband committees looking for a local solution. There are county governments all over the country making grants to help lure ISPs to serve their county. Statewide groups are working to solve the digital divide and the homework gap. There are a lot of people actively advocating for real broadband solutions.

These advocates don’t need a national goal document to tell them what they want. By now, communities understand good broadband in the simplest form – it’s something their community either has or doesn’t have. Communities now understand the digital divide and the homework gap. Wasting federal dollars to create a new National Broadband Plan wouldn’t move any community one inch closer to better broadband, and I hope we resist the temptation to go down that path.

Welcome, Merit Network!

The rural broadband community has a new ally in Merit Network of Michigan. Merit Network is a non-profit network that is governed by Michigan’s public universities. The organizations was founded in 1966 and was an early player that helped to develop some of the practice and protocols still used on the Internet. Their early mission was to seek ways for universities to network together, something that they accomplished by connecting Michigan and Michigan State in 1971. Merit went on to manage NSFNET, a nationwide network sponsored by the National Science Foundation, that was used to connect advance research labs and universities.

Over time, the company also collaborated with the Internet 2 project but also turned its attention to Michigan where it cobbled together a network comprised or owned and leased fibers used to provide bandwidth to K-12 schools around the state.

In the last year, Merit decided to further expand their mission. They now see that the biggest problem in Michigan education is the lack of home broadband for students. 70% of the teachers in Michigan assign computer-based homework, and yet 380,000 homes in Michigan don’t have a broadband connection. They are convinced, like many of us, that this homework gap is creating permanent harm and disadvantaging students without broadband.

The organization recently held their first statewide broadband summit and invited communities, service providers, anchor institutions, and broadband ‘activists’ to attend the summit. I’m pleased to have been invited to be a speaker. The goal of the conference was to describe the homework gap and to talk about real solutions for solving the problem in the state. The summit hoped to bring together stakeholders in rural broadband to form alliances to tackle the problem.

Merit has also taken several extraordinary steps that is going to make them a major player in the national effort to solve the homework gap. They’ve undertaken what they call Michigan Moonshot. This is an intensive effort to map and understand the availability of broadband around the state. The effort is being undertaken in collaboration with M-Lab and the Quello Center of Michigan State University. The concept is to encourage state educators to get students to take a specific speed test and to pair that effort with a program that teaches students about gathering scientific data.

The Moonshot effort is also going to correlate student test scores with broadband availability. This will be done in such a way as to guarantee student anonymity. This has been done before, but not on such a large scale. The project solicited participation from several school districts in Spring 2019 but expects to include many more in the future. The results of the data collection will be analyzed by scientists at Michigan State. The results of Moonshot studies should be of interest to educators and rural broadband proponents all over the country. Preliminary results show that it’s likely that there will be a strong measurable negative impact for students without home broadband. This study will provide peer-reviewed statistical evidence of that impact and should be a useful tool to educate legislators and to goad communities into action to find a broadband solution.

Merit is also nearing completion of a lengthy document they call the Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework, which they hope will be a living document (meaning that collaborators can make edits) that lays forth a guide for communities that want to find a local broadband solution. This document is a step-by-step roadmap for how a community can tackle the lack of broadband.

It’s always good to have another major player in the national battle to tackle the lack of household broadband. I have high hopes that Merit Network will spur finding broadband solutions for rural and urban students in Michigan.

Buffalo Providing WiFi to Student Homes

Buffalo New York is facing the same homework gap that most school systems are seeing. The city had spent millions of dollars to upgrade broadband to bring computer technology into the classroom but now has numerous students unable to use a digital curriculum due to not having broadband at their homes. Like everywhere else, the city sees that students without home broadband lag behind everybody else.

The City recently decided to tackle a portion of the homework gap and has approved building a WiFi network that will reach the homes of 5,500 students living in downtown Buffalo. They have approved a $1.3 million project to construct a wireless network that will extend the bandwidth available at the schools to surrounding neighborhoods.

Buffalo has what it calls digital deserts, with neighborhoods where more than half of households have no Internet access. This contrasts sharply with other parts of the city and with Erie County as a whole, where 80% of all households are online (with that statistic is depressed by including the digital deserts). The richest parts of the city have neighborhoods with nearly 90% broadband coverage, while there is one neighborhood in downtown with only a 31% household broadband penetration. The WiFi project is targeting two neighborhoods on the east side of downtown where the neighborhoods collectively have only a 40% broadband penetration.

The city is mounting antennas on top of eight downtown schools and other government-owned buildings. These installations take advantage of the gigabit bandwidth already available at City buildings. The network is being designed to reach students living within about two miles of each of the locations. For now, this first trial covers perhaps 5% of the total area of the city but covers neighborhoods with some of the highest needs in terms of students without home broadband.

Students will be able to log onto the school network using the same login used at school. The broadband connection will be limited to access the school network and is not intended to provide normal household broadband. The network will allow students into the highly controlled and curated school network that gives students access schoolwork, school-sponsored video and some access to the web for homework research.

Having access to a computer or tablet is the other half of the homework gap problem. Homes without broadband likely also don’t have computers. The city is working on a plan to let students take home laptops. Last year only seniors were able to take home school laptops, but in this coming year that is being expanded to all high school students in some schools. The city is exploring how to provide devices to students in grades 3 to 8.

Like other school systems, the city understands that smartphones are not the answer. While many students have smartphones, the devices are inadequate for doing homework, and students that try to wade through homework with smartphones fall behind from the frustration of using a small screen for big-screen applications.

Affordability is the main barrier to broadband in many households. In downtown Buffalo, there are three broadband options. The most affordable package from Charter, the incumbent cable company is $64.99. Verizon offers a slow low-price DSL option at $29.99, but this connection is too slow to connect to the school network to do homework. There is also an ISP, BarrierFree, that offers $100 broadband for businesses.

The city is also exploring free citywide WiFi that would bring broadband to everybody, not just to students. There is no easy answer to the homework gap, but perhaps Buffalo’s start is a model that can be explored by others. Recently the Government Accounting Office recommended that the FCC study the idea of using Schools and Libraries funds from the Universal Service Funds to reach students at home. If that fund can help pay for this kind of application, perhaps we can solve the homework gap neighborhood by neighborhood.