By Brian Louderback, Insight Enterprises.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, students from pre-K to higher ed in many rural and historically undeserved communities nationwide were struggling with the challenges of a lack of reliable internet access at home. In 2017, a report on America’s Digital Divide from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee found 12 million children did not have access to broadband internet at home, and these access problems were exacerbated in rural America, where only 62 percent of residents had access to broadband internet.
While in the classroom, these students had equal access to the internet as their peers. But the digital divide was laid bare by the fact that either traditional broadband service did not reach their home or that their family could not afford the costs of service. As a result, after-school access to computer labs or public libraries provided a stopgap for these students in many instances – but did not provide a long-term solution.
When COVID-19 sent students home for months on end – with roughly half of our students still not having returned to the classroom – the rise of virtual learning and the remote classroom threw a harsh spotlight on the inequity of internet access across the country. In many instances, students had to use unsafe and unreliable public Wi-Fi networks outside their homes to complete schoolwork and others simply have not been able to complete their schoolwork or attend virtual classes because of their lack of internet connectivity.
This is resulting in lagging education, as McKinsey & Company suggests that students on average are likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. For minority students, that gap is even wider – six to 12 months.
Local governments and school districts have worked to try to address this gap and find ways to stretch their budgets to support connectivity programs implementing new technology solutions to help bridge the digital divide and bring equitable access to broadband. With the passage of the CARES Act last year, the federal government provided critical access to funding that expedited districts’ abilities to put these technology solutions in place to establish the safe, reliable internet access their students needed without the risks of being on an unsecure, public network.
However, the CARES Act funding was just the first step for many cities and school districts. For their IT teams, the process of building, installing and integrating broadband solutions can typically take several months or even years to customize to an individual community’s unique needs. With school district IT teams still staffed based on in-person learning pre-COVID, many lack the manpower required to implement and manage a new broadband network while keeping the overall system afloat to support thousands of remote teachers and students.
As a result, many school districts are now engaging in public-private partnerships with commercial technology companies to gain a new form of control over connectivity that takes advantage of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) shared frequency spectrum rather than commercial LTE networks. These partnerships not only can implement technology solutions quickly and efficiently – in just a few months – but allow for more long-term network control by schools and municipalities as they build a critical foundation for future smart city advancements, which require at their core reliable broadband connectivity across a community.
Establishing a public-private network with CBRS can remove some dependency on commercial internet service providers. These services may lack infrastructure investments in more rural areas or require additional fees to attach community data-collection sensors and applications to their network. But public-private networks give full control over connectivity to local governments to provide secure access to internal, publicly owned assets – be it a school network, the public safety and transportation grid, etc. – with interconnectivity across departments where it makes sense.
Through these public-private partnerships, city or district IT teams also have the additional support they need in the short term to build broadband network infrastructure and deliver the right access devices – like Wi-Fi hotspots – to end users. At the same time, the partnerships supplement public agencies with the essential long-term managed services and help-desk level support needed to serve citizens and students once the network gets up and running.
Over time, as students ultimately return to the classroom in-person, the benefits of community wireless broadband will remain – from enabling students to stay up to speed while home sick to allowing for easy shifts to virtual classroom learning in lieu of situations like snow days that traditionally have kept students out of school.
For IT leaders in districts across the country, the urgency behind bridging the digital divide has never been more critical. By addressing this challenge today, we will be putting in place meaningful long-term solutions that not only solve a decades-long problem but will have a lasting impact on our ability to equitably educate the next generation while making our communities smarter in the process.