If you live in an urban setting on the East or West Coast, you would be forgiven for thinking the U.S. does not have a connectivity issue. Fast broadband is available (though not necessarily affordable) for most people.
Other parts of the country, however, have a much less consistent experience when it comes to getting fast broadband. For many, internet connections range from low speed to no connection at all. A study undertaken by Microsoft back in 2018 showed that over 160 million Americans did not have access to broadband (under the FCC’s definition of 25 mbps download speed). Just this week, California governor Gavin Newsom said that one in five students does not have access to high speed internet and a computer at home.
The recent shelter-in-place orders, which have resulted in most schools being closed, highlight how this disparity of access truly impacts people’s lives, as many children are deprived of one of their human rights: education.
Internet access has grown in importance as we’ve begun to shift much of what we did in real life to a digital format. People rely on apps for food shopping, ordering from local restaurants, checking police and county social media for the latest information, coming together as a community to worship, and checking up on loved ones near and far.
Every state in the U.S. must protect, respect, and fulfill the right to education, so what happens when the lack of connectivity deprives you of that right? The private sector has been working with school districts in several states, donating everything from computers and tablets to hot-spot devices for connectivity.
The federal government has allocated $2 trillion as part of the CARES Act to provide relief to many groups impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Out of that $2 trillion, roughly $30 billion is expected to go to education. The local school districts can use the funds for coronavirus-response activities such as planning for long-term school closures, purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students, and funding additional activities authorized by federal elementary and secondary education laws. There’s no mention of connectivity in the list of authorized activities.
Private companies have stepped in to help. T-Mobile announced the donation of 100,000 hotspots in collaboration with Google. Verizon is partnering with the State of California to provide 250,000 students with unlimited internet service at a discount. AT&T, Zoom, and PayPal are donating money while Lenovo, Microsoft, HP, Apple and Google are donating devices.
After seeing so many struggling with connectivity issues, I believe that schools should prioritize funds for connectivity. They should have plans in place for immediate needs, as well for a near future when 5G connectivity is widespread.
Sadly, most of the current discussions around 5G and COVID-19 are about the conspiracy theories that link the new fast cellular data networks to the spread of the coronavirus. The focus should instead be placed on looking at how the current situation could have been made much easier by the widespread availability of 5G.
Even in households in urban areas with fast broadband, the experience is not always great. Densely populated urban areas face Wi-Fi interference, which impacts the speed of your home network. Furthermore, the demand placed on home Wi-Fi networks is growing everyday as we add more internet capable devices. LTE already provides some relief, but the combination of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 (the next generation of Wi-Fi that will increase speed and more efficiently support a larger number of devices) will allow people to spread their data needs across fixed and wireless networks in a much more seamless way.
Tomorrow’s notebooks, tablets, and Chromebooks will be equipped with cellular connectivity.
5G could help solve the last-mile problem by bringing high-speed internet from the fiber backbone to the home. This hybrid solution could be a more realistic approach to connecting some areas of the country. However, the effort might still remain financially prohibitive for some providers, which might result in the need for the government to step in and subsidize part of the effort.
Technology and education
When we talk about technology for education, we usually think of iPads and Chromebooks, and the various apps that students are using to learn, do homework, and take tests. In most U.S. schools, students have access to at least one computing device. But if the coronavirus crisis has made anything clear, it’s that technology is an empty promise without connectivity. That’s why schools should start thinking about providing connected devices. I firmly believe that tomorrow’s notebooks, tablets, and Chromebooks will all be equipped with cellular connectivity the way our phones are.
As we embrace cloud-first workflows, coupled with new experiences such as augmented reality, connectivity will be a must-have no matter what device we’re using. Even though the deployment of wireless technologies on school campuses is often met with some resistance, I expect larger schools to consider the deployment of private 5G networks over the next 5 to 10 years as infrastructure costs decrease. This could guarantee better and more consistent coverage, as well as improved security.
It is hard to say what our world will be like once we are allowed to go back to our offices and schools, but I very much doubt everything will return to the way it was before the pandemic. Remote work and distance learning, done right, have advantages that are hard to deny. This leads me to believe that both companies and schools will land somewhere in between where we were before the pandemic and what we are living with while sheltering in place.
A more permissive attitude toward distance learning might bring new options to students. They may be able to attend a school that’s located too far away for a daily commute, for example. The student might board at the school for part of the week and learn from home for the remainder. And even if we do go back to school as before, we may learn from the current situation to use technology to more effectively bridge between home and school and between educators and parents.
The technology we use may actually make the digital versions of some experiences preferable to their real-world equivalents. Parent-teacher conferences that take place over Microsoft Teams, for example, have the advantage of offering real-time translation and transcripts for families whose first language is not English. The same can be said for study groups, which would no longer have physical limitations.
Looking at the driverless cars and smart cities of the future, it’s clear to me that connectivity will one day be seen as no less a necessity than gas, electricity, and water. But why wait until then? If a human right like education is denied because of a lack of connectivity, we should treat it as a vital utility today.
Carolina Milanesi is principal analyst at Creative Strategies and founder of The Heart of Tech, a tech consultancy focused on education and diversity. She has been covering consumer tech for over 15 years.