Broadband Scarcity Looms Over Virtual School Year

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (August 7, 2020, 9:27 PM EDT) -- As school districts hammer out plans to hold fall classes partially or fully online, educators and regulators are scrambling to get as many students connected to the internet as possible, highlighting the ongoing connectivity divide that threatens to further disadvantage low-income and rural learners.

Since March, the shutdown of schools and shift to online teaching caused by the coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how many families lack at-home internet access — about 12 million children and 18 million households. Experts say that gap is likely to persist this fall without adequate funding and practical delivery mechanisms.

"The lack of connectivity became clear in the spring ... and then it hasn't been solved since then," said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "There were a series of Band-Aids — well-intentioned, absolutely necessary Band-Aids — and some places have found more long-term solutions. But many have not because it is a huge problem."

The problem is big enough that Congress may need to offer an answer.

So far, congressional pandemic relief measures have included relatively small amounts of dedicated broadband funding. The Democratic-led House's latest iteration, the $3 trillion Heroes Act, would offer $1.5 billion to fund take-home Wi-Fi hotspots for students as well as emergency broadband funds for families impacted by the pandemic.

While the Republican-led Senate's answer to that bill, a $1 trillion legislative package, looks less promising, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during a Wednesday webinar that she's pushing her colleagues to include student broadband benefits.

"Now that we are finally having a debate on these bills, hopefully we will be able to include this funding when it comes to broadband," the Minnesota Democrat said. "That would greatly help our students."

For many school districts, that relief can't come soon enough. Hybrid schedules and fully virtual school plans put greater emphasis on making sure every child has an internet connection so they're not left behind in the first semester to commence since the coronavirus hit the U.S.

"In the last two weeks, things have shifted again so that the trend is [for schools] to go totally online in the fall," said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition. "Schools still aren't fully equipped to handle 100% online learning."

In March, groups that procure student-friendly hotspots and laptops with built-in internet access told Law360 that a spike in demand created a shortage of thousands — if not millions — of devices. That demand hasn't slacked in the last five months, despite the devices' limitations in extremely remote areas, according to Windhausen.

"The schools are still trying desperately to get their hands on hotspots," he said. "That's the No. 1 technology of choice, but it's not a long-term solution, and it's not a universal solution."

The gap between the digital haves and have-nots is forcing school districts to place an even greater emphasis on small slices of the student population that will not be able to access the internet in the fall. For example, Texas schools estimate that they can cover between 80% and 95% of their students with broadband access. While getting a majority of students online is admirable, Windhausen said it still falls short of educational parity.

"If you think of the mission of schools, [it's] to provide 100% of the students with education, not 90%," he said.

In the meantime, cities are trying to come up with creative public-private partnerships that sometimes combine federal, state and local funding with philanthropy to meet connectivity goals.

According to Siefer, Chicago has demonstrated a particularly good model by striking contracts with providers like Comcast for bulk sponsored service accounts, which let the school district pay for the service and provide it to students' homes.

The city's $50 million Chicago Connected plan, announced in June, seeks to get 100,000 students online over the next four years. Crucially, the arrangement allocated funds to community-based organizations so they can help new home-broadband users get used to the array of devices and platforms available, Siefer said.

"That is something that a lot of communities haven't done but will wish they had," Siefer said. "You can't just throw a computer and connectivity at kids and adults who haven't had it before and don't know how to use all the different platforms."

Tennessee's Hamilton County Schools and the city of Chattanooga offer another successful model by coordinating community and local government partnerships through a "locally funded, community-based initiative" known as HCS EdConnect, according to the district. The $8.4 million project will provide 28,500 students with Wi-Fi routers powered by the city's extensive fiber network.

"They have a center point doing this work," Siefer said. "I wish more communities had someone who steps up and says, 'This is our job.'"

Aside from funding and distribution issues, educators are also grappling with how to serve rural areas with big gaps in mobile network coverage. This means that even if a district can provide mobile hotspots or laptops to students, those devices wouldn't work.

"One big issue that keeps them up at night is the fact that there are students [who live] where availability is the issue, not affordability," said Christine Fox, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. "There are pockets in very rural areas where providing a hotspot or a mobile phone to a child doesn't make a difference because they don't have access in that area."

This dynamic has led districts to lean on more immediate — and often quite creative — solutions, like parking Wi-Fi-connected school buses in disadvantaged neighborhoods and opening up library networks to visitors in parking lots.

It's also led to a lot of brainstorming, which has turned up the possibilities of using stratospheric broadband balloons and TV "white spaces" technology, Fox said.

"We had a series of calls called 'Broadband: No Crazy Ideas,'" she laughed.

One solution that educators aren't holding their breath for is a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission that schools and libraries can spend their federal E-Rate funding on home connectivity.

The FCC has already allowed schools and libraries to direct their routers out to parking lots and permitted schools to accept companies' donations of broadband service and equipment. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has made clear that he doesn't believe federal law allows him to apply E-Rate funding for connections beyond physical classrooms.

"We think the statute does give them that flexibility," Windhausen said. "[But] making a big change to E-Rate doesn't seem to be on his agenda."

In the meantime, Windhausen's organization has asked the FCC to extend the period during which institutions can accept broadband and equipment donations until next March.

While educators are relying on local and state ingenuity to carry them into the virtual fall semester, Siefer acknowledged that these other improvements hinge on lawmakers' backing.

"They could say this is a pandemic, and we are going to let schools extend their connectivity to provide internet to the home," Siefer said. "Is the current FCC going to do that without congressional approval? No."

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie. Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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