The COVID-19 pandemic was a global tragedy. If there is any silver lining to be found, it is that the pandemic shone a spotlight on America’s digital divide and what’s at stake for children and education if we don’t fix it. More than a year after the last mask mandate and social distancing restrictions were lifted, broadband connectivity continues to be a major challenge in rural and other underserved communities. One report from Microsoft states that more than 120 million people in the U.S. (36%) are limited by connectivity below broadband speeds.[i]
Currently, in the United States:
- Approximately one in four students doesn’t have access to reliable devices or adequate internet connections.[ii]
- An estimated 42 million Americans cannot purchase broadband internet because of financial, geographic, or service limitations.[iii]
- Children from homes with an annual income of less than $25,000 are as much as 10 times less likely to engage with remote learning than children from higher-earning households.[i]
For America’s primary schools, which are already having to do much more with much less, the challenge of bridging the digital divide to ensure all students have equal access to the online content and classroom resources they need is especially difficult. A range of solutions is available, but many involve deploying enough wireless/mobile capacity to support high-speed broadband service; something that is beyond the budget for many rural school districts needing to distribute classroom content to students who don’t have an adequate internet connection.
Recently, datacasting and the scale-up potential of the latest ATSC 3.0 (Advanced Television Systems Committee) broadcast standard have emerged as a reliable and affordable alternative for delivering educational resources to students who lack access to high-speed broadband services. In this blog, we’ll dive a bit deeper into the technical opportunities and challenges.
Datacasting (sending data over a broadcast channel) enables schools to easily and affordably transmit lessons, resources, and information via television signals to students who lack reliable access to the internet. The technology, which bypasses the need for a cellular network or internet service, uses television broadcast signals to distribute content and information to students. If the student can receive the local tv broadcast, they can take advantage of datacasting.
Prior to datacasting, pushing out content involved a point-to-point solution. If a school had a single 100MB file it needed to send to 1,000 students, that one file with the same content would need to be sent 1,000 times, one for every student, and require 1,000 separate data connections. Datacasting is a point-to-multipoint solution. It enables teachers, schools, and school districts to transmit that same 100MB file one time over a single connection and reach all 1,000 students. So, it’s a far more efficient and affordable solution for one-to-many communication use cases.
The technology is not new; for years, it’s been used to deliver public safety data to police, fire, and other first responders. Now, thanks to changes in television broadcast standards, the capabilities of datacasting have greatly expanded, making it an attractive solution for schools to reach students.
How datacasting for education works
The broadcaster service provider (often a local tv station) create a one-time, API-based integration with their learning management system (like Google Classroom or Canvas). Teachers and school administrators upload content using their existing remote learning platform. Creating content for datacasting doesn’t require personnel to learn a new technology or invest in additional equipment. All that’s needed is a laptop and a connection to the learning platform.
Just about any kind of existing content can be sent via datacasting. This includes recorded and live lectures, homework problems, class lessons, quizzes, and tests. In addition to class-specific content, schools can create and cast information intended for students in any pre-determined group including entire schools or school districts.
Once the content is created, the datacasting service provider working with a broadcast network operator pushes the content out to all the receiving devices in the coverage area. This is done using a dedicated service and a small amount of broadcast spectrum that enable all students in the area to receive the content at the same time without connecting to the internet.
Content files are downloaded on to the receive boxes. The student can use a Wi-Fi-enabled device (i.e., cell phone, computer, tablet, etc.) with an application to access the content. One receiver is sufficient to support multiple students in the household. Each student can log in to their account and access content that is relevant to them.
The teacher, school, or school district specifies the content to be accessed by each student. Each piece of content is encrypted and can only be viewed and downloaded by devices with the corresponding private service code. The student logs into their account using their device and can view any content meant for them.
Why ATSC 3.0 is a key enabler?
The enabling technology behind educational datacasting is the new ATSC 3.0 standard. This latest ATSC standard was approved in 2017. The key difference between ATSC 3.0 and its predecessor, ATSC 1.0, is that version 1.0 was strictly limited to casting the audio or video from the broadcast tv signal. On the other hand, ATSC 3.0 is a more efficient and IP-based standard that allows almost any kind of data to be sent—files, videos, audio, software, pictures., etc.
Designed to be highly flexible and configurable, the ATSC 3.0 standard enables robust, point-to-multipoint transmission over IP to both fixed and mobile devices. This versatile technology provides higher data capacity, more flexible spectrum use, immersive and interactive audio/visual experiences, and greater scalability.
Furthermore, because the ATSC 3.0 standard is built on an IP backbone, the receiving device does not need to be a television, which means that design possibilities for receiving devices are nearly unlimited. A device as small as a deck of cards with an antenna could be a data offload point. Likewise, data could be broadcast directly to students’ laptops, mobile phones, tablets, etc.
FCC has stipulated that high-power broadcasters must continue to support ATSC 1.0 if they want to add ATSC 3.0 (that requirement does not apply to low-power broadcasters). Broadcasters are working together on channel-sharing agreements to speed up the deployment of ATSC 3.0. There are many ATSC 3.0 receive devices being offered in the market. We expect the device ecosystem to expand and device prices to decrease to further increase datacasting affordability. School districts can avail themselves of federal grants to fund the procurement and distribution of end-user devices.
Trilogy NextGen for your connectivity needs
Trilogy NextGen was founded with a focus on leveraging the broadcast spectrum for datacasting applications and has been testing the technology for new, innovative uses. With a history in broadcasting and experience in 3GPP cellular technologies, we’re helping to define what the future of datacasting could look like. This includes working on ways to enable more economical alternatives to the status quo. In this model, the downstream traffic is still delivered via broadcast tv spectrum, while the limited upstream traffic would use internet service provider networks or a private cellular LTE/5G network.
Our approach is to leverage datacasting technology on an area-need basis along with cellular communications so that educational institutions, smart cities, and industrial customers can overcome limited connectivity challenges, reduce costs, and improve efficiencies. To learn how Trilogy NextGen can provide reliable datacasting solutions for your connectivity needs, contact us.
[i] Innovations in Distance Education: Datacasting; American Institutes for Research; 2023
[ii] K–12 Student Digital Divide Much Larger Than Previously Estimated and Affects Teachers, Too, New Analysis Shows; Common Sense Media; June 29, 2020
[iii] FCC Reports Broadband Unavailable to 21.3 Million Americans; Broadband Now, report; May 6, 2020