Schools Find New Way to Give Free Internet To Students

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Schools around the country are racing each other to become the most tech-friendly schools in the country, from new computers to 3D printers, there’s plenty of new ways to learn in school. Unfortunately, for some kids, learning stops when they leave the classroom.

An equity issue is happening in America. Nearly five million households with school-aged children cannot afford broadband or live in underserved rural areas that can’t get proper access to internet.

In small rural counties, there could be 20 percent of students who lack home broadband, meaning all the latest education technology tools meant to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps can widen them instead. So, rather than wait for reluctant commercial internet providers to expand their reach, school districts are building their own countywide broadband networks.

Still in its early stages, this ambitious project relies on a little-known public resource — a slice of electromagnetic spectrum the federal government long ago set aside for schools — called the Educational Broadband Service (EBS). The EBS has been underutilized because of a loose regulatory oversight by the FCC that allows most of the spectrum to fall into the hands of commercial internet providers.

The resulting spectrum scarcity may be the most daunting of the legal, technical and monetary challenges faced by any district hoping to create its own broadband network. But a few pioneering districts have shown that it’s possible.

Peak Internet

Towers are a critical part of a broadband network, but they are expensive. A new tower can cost over $100,000 to create, and getting permits is tricky too. Making a deal that emergency services like police and EMS can also use the broadband network could be a good start to easily getting a permit.

Besides the tower, you also need routers .For some school districts, using outside routers that will pick up internet from the towers and connect to the school-issued computers (and only the school-issued computers), free of charge.

Many schools can do this without using any more taxpayer money. Federal government awards billions of dollars to get schools and libraries online through their E-rate program, and this could potentially be eligible.

Leased Out

Towers and routers are nothing without a license to beam all the data through a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. The FCC divides up the spectrum into allowable uses, such as for TV, radio, satellites and mobile data. Nobody can own spectrum, but they can get a license to use specific frequencies, which the FCC grants by geography. That’s why, for example, 92.9 FM is alternative rock in Boston, sports talk in Atlanta and classic hits in Tulsa.

Demand for bandwidth and mobile coverage has skyrocketed, and internet companies have given the FCC millions of dollars for spectrum licenses. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible for schools to get access like this, even with the EBS in place. Most schools who have an EBS license will keep it until 2030 or so, and that is too late for many schools to get off-campus broadband for all students.

While much of the EBS spectrum will be controlled by commercial internet providers for the next two decades, there are exceptions. Some early leases were for just 10 or 15 years, for instance, and will expire soon. And a number of lease holders fell prey to economic realities, like the great recession.

Digital Disadvantage

Schools are slowly trying to give every student their own device, especially in rural areas where students can’t afford to bring their own. They replace textbooks, assignments, and sometimes lectures. While this is great for in-school activities, many children still have limited or no access to internet at home.

Students without home access squeeze in a little more time online whenever possible, sometimes by skipping lunch to camp out in the school library, or squeeze in time before they have to leave school just to get some extra time online. Every fall, students are shown how to download assignments from Blackboard before they leave school, so they can complete them offline at home and then upload them again the next day.

These workarounds can be stressful, and some trenchers can’t assign internet-based homework because it wouldn’t be fair to half the class.

Parents will sometimes take their children to a public library or McDonald’s for free internet, but this can be a strain for younger children and the parents. Students want to download new books to read or a math app so they do better in class, and some can’t do that.

Hopefully, as more school districts try and take on these new problems that arise, a good solution for all will come along. Internet is important nowadays, and without it a student could be at a serious disadvantage. Luckily, many schools are pitching in to try and fix that to give each child the opportunity they deserve.