School has opened across the country, but in many districts that means class via internet—if those students are among those fortunate enough to have access to fast, large-capacity internet connections.
How many aren’t connected? The answer is that nobody’s exactly sure. One study says that 33 million citizens live without the net. The FCC says that 19 million Americans lack access to broadband at threshold speeds; they also say that 99.99% of the US population has access to some kind of internet. None of the surveys really capture the picture on the ground. Here’s a house that has a good internet connect—except when it rains. Here’s a home where the connection is good—unless five people have to connect their devices at the same time.
So as schools shift to online education, we have more tales of students sitting in parking lots to grab the wi-fi. Schools (and other sponsors) invest in hot spots, even deploying hot spot school buses. But a hot spot device only works in places where there’s a signal available. In my mostly-rural county, there are many places where neither the internet nor wireless phone signals reliably reach.
We are well past the point of pretending that some sort of market solution will bring the US close to 100% real connectivity. There are some corners of the country where it simply does not pay to build and maintain the infrastructure or provide the internet service itself. Getting service to all Americans is a huge challenge, but we’ve met similar challenges before when it came to telephone and electric service. If we can agree that an internet connection is as much a necessity of modern life as electricity and telecommunications, why not declare the internet a public utility, and why not make use of the government entity that already reaches to every corner of the country—US public school districts.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the internet was an official public utility. The FCC declared it one in 2015, but that was part of the fight over net neutrality, and nobody was paying attention to any implications for universal service. And as an action of the Obama administration, it was promptly undone after Trump took office.
So what would we have to do to get every US student a decent internet connection.
One issue would be service and support. Even if your school district has put a device in every student’s hands, chances are that it is not top-of-the-line and is therefor slightly less reliable than the average computer. Most tech-heavy schools have two avenues of support: the official (”Take this non-booting unit to the tech office”) and the unofficial (”I think Ms. McTechface in room 203 knows how to get this function to work”). When students (and teachers) are working from home, they are cut off from both.
There are commercial solutions to this issue. Some are regional, but on the national level, there are companies like CompuCom, owned by Office Depot and in the business for 34 years. Providing support for distributed users and technology is the challenge, but CEO Mick Slattery says, “We do it for the corporate world. Why not education?” Slattery says CompuCom is structured to work with school districts, making this sort of service an attractive method for districts to be responsive to student and teacher needs without hopelessly stretching district staff.
Another major issue is infrastructure. There has been concern about that network infrastructure before Covid-19 ever hit; now the need to expand and strengthen it is even more critical and concerning. Some solutions are as mundane as laying out more fiber optic cable. Meanwhile, in the UK they are experimenting with balloon-kite aerial platforms for temporary 5G coverage.
Evan Marwell is the founder of EducationSuperHighway, an organization that helped get an internet connection to almost every school in the country. He sees a need for a federal subsidy for extending fiber networks into every community, and points to the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund set up this year with $20 billion to get that job done. His cautions that the feds need to collect good data first. $20 million would be needed to do the mapping, but, Marwell says, “If you don’t have data, you’ll waste time building what people don’t need.”
Marwell considers the biggest problem to be affordability, but willingness to adopt is also an issue. A Pew survey found that many of those who are not on the internet can’t afford it, or feel that it’s not worth the cost for the little use it provides. Some non-adopters are unlikely to ever budge; my old high school has been a one-to-one school (one school-provided computer for every student) since 2010, and there have always been a non-zero number of families who have refused to have the device in their home. But those who can’t afford it, or are simply making a cost-effectiveness judgment against connectivity, could benefit from a subsidy.
In both cases—mapping the infrastructure gaps and finding those households that need subsidies—school districts are positioned to be hubs for both finding the information and making sure the subsidies get where they’re needed. Like operating food programs for low-income students, it represents one more thing placed on the schools’ backs; but as we are currently seeing, internet connectivity can quickly become a critical issue for school’s primary mission.
There are other possible tools available. Cities can step in where commercials providers won’t step up. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city-owned agency operates an internet service offering 1000 megabits per second for $70/month (for $58, you can get a still-blazing 100 meg service). But in 20 states, laws have been passed with phone company backing that forbid cities from competing with broadband operators.
Meanwhile, just this week, 30 Senators proposed that the FCC take money from the E-Rate program to provide connections in student homes to deal with pandemic on-line learning.
What we’ve learned since last March is that the marketplace solution for internet coverage does not provide the kind of coverage necessary if all (or even most) students in the country are going to go to school online. As with electricity, phone service, and mail delivery, some sort of government involvement is needed, because as you are now hearing from thousands of teachers and students, the current patchwork that we have is not sufficient to serve the needs of all of America’s students.