In mid-2020, at the pandemic’s height in the U.S., an estimated 21 million Americans lacked internet access. According to a study by Microsoft, as many as 162 million people may actually lack access to fast and reliable internet,[i] defined by the FCC as >25 Mbps download speeds and >3 Mbps upload speeds. About 12 million of those are students in America’s K-12 public schools.[ii]
The digital divide in education and its long-term costs continue to grow despite tremendous advances in mobile and wired network technology. Low-income students and those receiving free or reduced-price lunches (FRPL) are most affected; meaning Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are more likely to lag behind their peers.
The challenges facing each school district are highly nuanced depending on the population served, geography, existing infrastructure and socio-economic conditions. Therefore, multiple approaches have been and continue to be developed to address each type of use case.
At Trilogy NextGen, we support all efforts to bridge the digital divide and applaud the creativity and determination that different school districts are using to level the playing field for all students. While we were not involved in the following projects, the following are four innovative approaches to delivering home-based high-speed connectivity to students living on the other side of the digital divide.
Connecting students at home with leased 2.5GHz
Use Case: Widely diverse and economically disadvantaged population.
Challenge: The Albemarle County Public School (ACPS) district is comprised of 24 elementary, middle and high schools serving over 14,000 students in and around Charlottesville, VA. More than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged or receive free or reduced-price lunches (FRPL). About 10 percent identify as English learners.
Solution: In 2019, ACPS established the ACPS@Home initiative, creating partnerships with a commercial ISP and the county’s IT department, to deliver high-speed, low-cost connectivity to disadvantaged students.
Approach: ACPS leases its 2.5 GHz ESB spectrum to the ISP, which funds mobile hotspots issued to students. In return, the ISP provides broadband internet connections through its low-cost internet program. Commercially available, standards-based cellular equipment provides wireless data services via a private LTE network deployed on existing infrastructure that includes rooftops, radio towers, and leased and school district-owned fiber-optic (or fiber) for data transport to minimize recurring costs. ACPS serves as the financial sponsor to ensure that all economically disadvantaged students living in the ISP service area receive adequate internet access. A partnership with the county’s information technology (IT) department enables ACPS to accurately monitor connectivity through online speed tests.
Connecting widely dispersed students in rural communities
Use Case: 17 school districts in a widely dispersed and economically distressed region.
Challenge: The Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) serves 17 school districts and 37,375 K-12 students spread across thousands of square miles of southern Californian desert. The area’s agricultural-based population is 85 percent Hispanic/Latino and 93 percent of children are economically disadvantaged or participate in the FRPL program.
Solution: Partnering withImperial Valley Telecommunications Authority (IVTA), a regional collaborative, ICOE used IVTA’s fiber backbone and its own 2.5 GHz licenses to create an off-campus Wi-Fi network for students.
Approach: The LTE network’s 14 towers cover 1,400 square miles using 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum. Each tower is connected via a 1 gigabit fiber-optic connection fed by a 10-gigabit backbone that is also owned, operated, and maintained by IVTA. The IVTA utilizes member agency-owned assets such as gymnasiums, radio towers, and buildings with pre-existing connections to reduce deployment costs. The approach offers students and families several options to connect: Mi-Fi hotspot, LTE enabled equipment, indoor modem, or outdoor LTE antennas.
Model: Multi-Pronged Approach
Use Case: Underserved K-12 students across eight schools in rural central California
Challenge: Lindsay Unified School District in central California serves 4,200 K-12 students in eight schools. 94% are Hispanic/Latino, 89% receive FRPL assistance. As many as 60 percent of student homes have no commercial internet; for those that do, connection speeds are typically below 1.5 Mbps. With a tight budget and schedule, LUSD and community stakeholders worked with outside consultants and installers to plan and implement their own network solution.
Solution: A community-centric approach that uses unlicensed 5 GHz cellular augmented by traditional high-speed LTE broadband. Key to the effort was a close working partnership with the city of Lindsay, CA.
Approach: The unlicensed 5 GHz network uses 400+ distribution points located on buildings across the city. Cell towers on the LUSD campus transmit the core signal to distribution points which relay the signal to students’ homes. Each distribution point serves 30-40 homes via rooftop antennas. Where rooftop antennas aren’t possible, three tri-sector LTE towers on campus deliver up to 60-70 Mbps per sector. Students use school-issued Mi-Fi hotspot devices provided to homes free of charge to pick up the unlicensed 5 GHz and 4G LTE signals and connect. A third technology, CBRS, was added in (year) to cover densely populated areas that cannot be reached with either of the two existing technologies. LUSD has been able to build and maintain the networks with the district’s general funds.
Public-Private Partnerships Connect Low-Income Students at No Cost
Use Case: Large school district in Colorado with 56 schools across 500 square miles needing to connect FRPL students at little to no cost.
Challenge: 20% of Boulder Valley School District’s (BVSD) 31,000 students are eligible for FRPL with some schools exceeding 65%. Many of these same student homes also lack access to high-speed internet. In the early 2010’s BVSD used its own fiber network to connect low income students in a nearby public housing community. They soon learned that network services delivered outside of traditional brick and mortar schools didn’t qualify for E-Rate funding. BVSD had to find other ways to get internet access to all qualifying students in need.
Solution: Partner with an over-the-air/wireless service provider in order to exchange access to district-owned real-estate and fiber for free internet service to qualifying low-income students.
Approach: In 2017, BVSD established a public/private partnership with Livewire Networks (Livewire) called ConnectME (My Education). Under the terms of the partnership, Livewire provides all school-based transmitting/receiving equipment, including antennas, and all student home-based equipment, including wireless routers. BVSD provides on-campus space for Livewire equipment, backhaul using bond-funded dark fiber, and a dedicated dark fiber line that Livewire uses to deliver internet access to non-school customers.
In return Livewire provides BVSD free internet service to all FRPL qualifying students and their families, as well as 25 percent of revenues generated from Livewire equipment installed on any BVSD site. BVSD, meanwhile, provides Livewire equipment space, the fiber infrastructure and the opportunity to resell internet services to non-FRPL student homes and non-school customers.
The Common Thread
The second key ingredient are the partnerships required. As shown above, each project typically involves multiple key partnerships—financial, communal and technological. The most successful initiatives build strong support across stakeholder groups and involve technology partners who buy in to the vision and have the expertise and experience to bring it to life.
Each of these cases shares two things in common—vision and partnership. As noted at the beginning, there is no magic bullet for ensuring every child has equal access to technology, at home and at school. Each use case is unique, each demands a unique solution; developing it requires a clear and unified vision. This includes an understanding of not only what the outcome needs to be, but also the internal and external obstacles standing in the way.
Adding Datacasting to the Toolbox
At Trilogy NextGen, we work with schools and school districts every day, helping them think outside the box to create unique wireless solutions to meet their individual challenges. Our particular skill set combines expertise in designing, building, deploying and maintaining broadband, broadcast and cloud-based networks. We provide end-to-end, customized solutions that include but are not limited to:
- Private LTE/5G Networks
- Neutral Host for Public Wireless Connectivity
- Network Engineering and Design
- Cloud Services
- Network Deployment
- Managed services
As the digital education gap widens, the urgency to solve it intensifies as America grapples with the prospect of generations of under-educated students who are ill-prepared to succeed in a technology-first world. Addressing the divide is a collaborative effort involving schools, government and technology partners. At Trilogy NextGen, we believe everybody should have access to the future. To learn more about how we’re helping schools bridge the digital divide, visit: https://trilogynextgen.com/education/.
[i] Who’s Not Online in America Today?; Pew Trust, article; May 29, 2020
[ii] K–12 Schools Seek to Connect 12 Million Students Without Home Broadband Access: EdTech Magazine; March 2, 2022