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Remote education is forcing the U.S. to confront the digital divide

With schools continuing digital classes this fall and millions of students without home internet, communities are scrambling to bring kids and their families online.

Remote education is forcing the U.S. to confront the digital divide
[Photo: NASA]

COVID-19 has introduced a host of new challenges to everyday life. But it’s also turned longstanding weaknesses in American society into acute crises. One of the biggest problems: Millions of students can’t keep up with online schoolwork because they lack internet access at home.

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The “digital divide” between connected and unconnected Americans has long been a challenge for students who are increasingly required to go online to complete their homework. Up till this year, they cobbled together fixes, like using Wi-Fi networks at the school library or McDonald’s. But the challenge for internet-poor students intensified with the coronavirus and the transition to remote learning that began in the spring and is continuing this fall.

Schools have been scrambling to bridge the digital divide by subsidizing internet access for unconnected students, often tapping funds from the federal government’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act coronavirus relief package. Many school districts have purchased and handed out 4G wireless hotspots, or have paid for discount wired internet services for low-income families, such a Comcast’s $9.95-per-month Internet Essentials package, which is now connecting about 200,000 students. Other communities are expanding free internet services by setting up public hotspots around cities, inviting families to access Wi-Fi from school parking lots, or even dispatching Wi-Fi-equipped buses to neighborhoods with a dearth of home service.

“Those are signs of desperation, honestly,” says Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief at BroadbandNow, an internet provider shopping site that publishes thorough research on the state of the industry. “I think unfortunately we’re paying the price for dragging our feet over the past decade when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the developed world.”

What went wrong over the years? How did the birthplace of the internet become a nation where broadband is unavailable to large chunks of the population, keeping students from taking part fully in modern education and their parents from taking advantage of the modern economy? Big investments have been made in the internet in the U.S., but not uniformly or with an eye to expanding connectivity as far as possible. It’s not a task that private industry cares to take on, nor is it one that the public sector can solve on its own—not in a country with such a strident free-market ethos. But even before COVID, some communities were finding ways to provide more equitable connectivity. The urgency of the pandemic-fueled connectivity crisis could be an opportunity to finally bring the internet to everyone—if we’re able to see past the immediate challenges of 2020 and implement longer term solutions.

Millions unconnected

Though the digital divide has been a problem for decades, the pandemic has revealed its scale. A new study by Common Sense Media estimates that of the country’s 51 million students, up to 15 million either had no home broadband service or lack service that can handle the demands of online classes, such as hours of videoconferencing per day. What’s more: Up to 400,000 teachers also lack adequate connections. Cell-phone service didn’t count in this measure due to data caps, limited bandwidth, and the difficulty of working on tiny screens.

The digital divide mostly refers to home broadband, but schools have also been scrambling to equip students with home computers, often Google Chromebooks. Common Sense Media’s study found that 10 million students lack access to a computer or tablet at home. And many more may have to share a device with other siblings or parents, preventing them from being connected for the long stretches that online learning now requires. Without access to machines at the school or public library, students may be forced to work on a cell phone (perhaps their parent’s), straining to use educational software designed for larger screens.

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We’re paying the price for dragging our feet over the past decade when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the developed world.”

Tyler Cooper

Even if students do have a device through which they can learn and some connectivity, it’s not always enough to ensure they have full access to online education. Defining what constitutes adequate broadband service remains up for debate. The Federal Communications Commission provides the most common benchmark, defining broadband as providing at least 25 megabits-per-second downloads and 3Mbps uploads (the same speeds that Comcast Internet Essentials offers). For perspective, Zoom recommends at least 1.2 Mbps download speed for attending a webinar in HD and 1.8 Mbps, down and up, for a one-on-one video chat at 1080p HD resolution. (BroadbandNow features a speed calculator to estimate how much bandwidth different households require.) In a household with multiple students, plus parents that need to work online, the FCC standard can quickly appear stingy.

Amina Fazlullah, policy counsel at Common Sense Media, says that communities should aim for 100Mbps symmetric service (the same speeds for downloads and uploads) to prepare for coming needs. Some cities have figured out how to bridge the gap: Chattanooga, Tennessee, is now offering those speeds, for free, to thousands of low-income families. Meanwhile, other communities are struggling to get even minimal broadband service to their students.

How did connectivity become so uneven across the country? Sometimes it’s a matter of physical access: Wires just don’t extend to some neighborhoods. Poor infrastructure isn’t only a problem in rural America, Fazlullah says. Private-sector internet service providers build out networks to maximize return on investment, and some poor urban neighborhoods aren’t seen as good investments. “You have this Swiss cheese that occurs, even in urban areas. You’ll have these unexpected pockets of communities that just don’t have the underlying infrastructure,” she says. (Publicly run networks, like Chattanooga’s, don’t have this pressure to maximize profit.)

That leaves satellite internet service as the only option for some locations. “In some areas, you’re just going to wait forever before you can get cell service or wired service,” says John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB). But today’s satellite packages are notoriously slow and expensive, such as 25/3 Mbps for $70 per month, with a 20GB per month data cap.

Still, Windhausen is enthusiastic about new satellite services, like SpaceX Starlink and Amazon Kuiper. In place of a few satellites orbiting more than 20,000 miles above Earth in geostationary orbits, new networks would feature thousands of satellites flying just a few hundred miles up. The proximity should allow them to provide higher bandwidth with far less lag. SpaceX promises up to gigabit speeds for Starlink customers, but even a tenth of that would be a huge improvement for many Americans. About 600 Starlink satellites are now in orbit, and the company plans to begin offering service in the U.S. this year, with the goal of reaching five million customers. But rumors put the price at around $80 per month.

That’s even higher than the average broadband package in the U.S., which runs about $70 per month, according to BroadbandNow. Even many people with access to networks remain offline because they can’t afford the service.

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Quick fixes vs. long-term solutions

With every student needing online access to complete their work, schools are uncovering the physical and financial barriers to internet access, down to the level of individual homes. “On a daily basis, I was talking with vendors . . . saying, ‘I have a family on this street that can’t get access. What can we do?'” says Frank Edelblut, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education. In a small state, top officials can get involved on such a granular level, he says.

The CARES Act has opened up a big chest of money to apply to the digital divide, but it’s temporary money for temporary solutions. “I think it makes sense this fall to use hotspots and [Comcast] Internet Essentials and any other solution we can to lessen the pain for families during the pandemic,” says Christopher Mitchell, director for Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “But what I worry about is, I don’t see nearly enough communities that are planning for next year.”

Some communities are finding ways, though. New Hampshire, for instance, is allocating $16 million in CARES Act funding to subsidize the extension of private ISPs’ infrastructure to reach another 5,500 properties. “We are literally building expanded internet so that we can address the immediate impact of COVID-19 instruction. But then that [network] doesn’t go away once we get a handle on COVID,” says Edelblut.

Beyond subsidies, governments can also enter into deals with private companies that align with public interests. Three years ago, the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado began a modest partnership with Live Wire Networks, a wireless internet service provider (WISP). Unlike cellular providers that serve mobile devices, a WISP like Live Wire beams internet to fixed antennas on buildings, competing with wired broadband providers.

Boulder Valley needed internet access for unconnected students, and it had something to offer in return: rooftops where the company could place its antennas. “Our schools are right in the middle of neighborhoods, right where the needs are at,” says Andrew Moore, Boulder Valley’s CTO. The district had also invested in a fiber-optic network to connect all of its schools, and it built in plenty of excess capacity, so-called “dark fiber” for future needs. Live Wire could use some of that dark fiber to link together the rooftop transmitters spread across the school district.

If we’re ever going to get to break the mold in society between the haves and the have-nots, everybody needs that full internet access.”

Andrew Moore

So Moore made a deal: In exchange for access to the school district’s rooftops and fiber network, Live Wire will provide free internet service to the homes of all students on the free and reduced-price lunch program, about 6,000 kids, or 20% of the student population. Live Wire will also pay the school district 25% of revenue it makes off regular customers. Instead of paying a private company to provide internet service to students, Boulder Valley makes some money, and gets free service for students. Four schools are currently equipped to beam internet access, with plans to equip another 50 schools over the coming three years. (Meanwhile, the school district is investing in short-term fixes, such as buying T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots and paying for Internet Essentials. Live Wire also put up a temporary transmitter to serve one hard-to-reach neighborhood.)

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Live Wire’s free offering is a bit better than Comcast Internet Essentials, with 25Mbps downloads and 5Mbps uploads. “At 25 Mbps, you have to be cognizant of what each member of a household is doing,” says Moore. “If mom and dad are on video calls, and five children need to be streaming at the same time, it will be an issue.” Live Wire will allow recipients of the free service to pay for upgrades, as high as 100/10 Mbps service for $35 per month.

Note that Moore includes “mom and dad” when reckoning how much bandwidth will be needed. While children are the first priority, schools recognize that connectivity benefits the whole family. “If we’re ever going to get to break the mold in society between the haves and the have-nots, I think at the most foundational level, everybody needs that full internet access,” says Moore. That said, the free service to a family ends when the last kid graduates high school. School-based connectivity programs can have temporary side benefits for other members of the family, but they are not a comprehensive solution for how the digital divide affects adults.

The power of public networks

Partnerships with private companies offer one route to reducing the digital divide, but advocates point to public-run internet service as the most powerful way to connect people. Their shining example is Chattanooga, Tennessee. In response to the coronavirus crisis, the city just announced a 10-year program of free internet for low-income families, providing 100Mbps symmetric service. It’s being offered to all families with students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. That comes out to about 28,500 students in a district with around 45,000 kids.

Chattanooga can offer such service because it has already made long-term investments in internet access. In 2009, the city-owned power company, EPB, opened a high-speed fiber-optic network that blows away the offerings in almost any other U.S. city. Today customers can buy plans starting at 300Mbps symmetrical for $58 per month. One gigabit-per-second service goes for $68 per month—still below the national average for far-slower plans.

Even with such low prices, EPB turns a profit from its over 100,000 subscribers. And the efficient fiber network allows the city to provide free 100Mbps service for low-income families at minimal cost. The city declined to name the exact price, but confirms it costs less per household than the $9.95 it would pay for Comcast’s far-slower Internet Essentials package.

“This is not just a response to the pandemic, short term,” says Debra Socia, president and CEO of the Enterprise Center, a nonprofit organization that partners with the city to promote innovation and development. “This is a long-term solution for a problem that existed prepandemic, that was exacerbated by these problems that we currently face,” she says.

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This is not just a response to the pandemic, short-term.”

Debra Socia

Given Chattanooga’s roaring success, why don’t more communities invest in fiber-optic networks? Often it’s against the law. According to the latest annual study by BroadbandNow, 22 states have laws that make it difficult—and sometimes impossible—for communities to set up public networks. Some laws restrict a community to only serving areas that have absolutely no other broadband options—regardless of how poor the existing options are. Others prohibit local governments from offering better pricing than the private ISPs do. Two states, Missouri and Nebraska, outright ban local governments from selling internet access to residents.

Tennessee law allows municipalities that run their own electric utilities to also provide broadband, which makes Chattanooga’s network possible. But the city can only serve residents who are also electric utility customers. Otherwise EPB could extend fast, cheap internet service to more people.

A strong telecom lobby in many states has made it difficult to expand public utility internet providers. But some state barriers are beginning to fall. In the past year, Arkansas, California, and Connecticut removed legal roadblocks to municipal networks. (California alone has nearly 40 million inhabitants.) Other states have set up task forces or other mechanisms to investigate ways to improve broadband access. The U.S. may be becoming a more receptive place for broadband as a public utility.

But public utilities aren’t the only solution. Fazlullah says that government can improve commercial services by setting requirements for how private companies must build out networks. While this may sound like a blue-state, big-government approach, Fazlullah holds up thoroughly red, very rural North Dakota as a prime example. “They’ve required a universal build-out of high-capacity, high-quality networks,” she says.

Fazlullah now has her sights on California, where new legislation could help to push the country’s biggest state to modernize its infrastructure. Senate Bill 1130 would update the California Advanced Services Fund, which subsidizes deployment of broadband to unserved communities. The new law sets higher technical standards, requiring funded projects to provide “high-capacity, future-proof infrastructure.”

A moment to make a change

Despite the dismal state of broadband access, Americans have luckily been able to find stopgap fixes for the digital divide. And the emergency fixes put in place can last for some time. Chicago and Philadelphia, for instance, have pledged to pay Comcast Internet Essentials bills for four years. Wireless hotspots will last a while, too. “Those hotspots are not terribly expensive, and they do have a shelf life of two or three years,” says Windhausen. But can schools keep paying the subscription bills on those hotspots, when Congress shows no sign of agreeing on further relief funding for the ongoing COVID-19 crisis? SHLB estimates that keeping U.S. students connected, including providing devices such as laptops and tablets, will cost over $5.25 billion this school year.

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And that’s just for continuing temporary fixes, not for long term investment. A bill to permanently expand broadband to all Americans, sponsored by influential Democratic congressman Jim Clyburn, has a whopping $100 billion price tag (and no Republican cosponsors). It’s hard to imagine any legislation coming out of a government that’s so divided going into an election, and that may remain divided afterward. Meanwhile, many state and local governments are in dire financial shape due to the COVID-19 economic slowdown.

Yet the virus has also created a new sense of urgency around closing the digital divide. “We’re getting more phone calls than ever before from policymakers,” says Windhausen. “So there’s more urgency to getting this done than ever.”

Mitchell is cautiously optimistic that at least the perception of the problem has changed. “I hope to never again have a discussion about whether the goal is to have access in the home for everyone,” he says. “As recently as last year, we had elected officials say it’s perfectly fine for kids to go to McDonald’s to do their homework. I think that part of the argument is done.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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