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Home Broadband: 3 Questions for Fixing the Problem

By Terry Denoyer

One of the many truths 2020 exposed was the necessity for and widespread lack of connectivity to home broadband service.

The coronavirus stimulus package Congress passed late last year includes a $50-per-month “emergency broadband benefit,” (EBB) for low-income households, as well as funding for the expansion of infrastructure in marginalized communities. It marked a historic recognition of America’s broadband problem. Nonetheless, questions remain regarding what the future will look like when it comes to school, communities, and home broadband access.

1. What should be done in neighborhoods where high-speed internet is available but families cannot afford it?

Many districts approached this problem by working with their local internet service providers to negotiate reduced group rates and subsidize fees for low-income families (i.e. a sponsored service). Among others, Atlanta Public Schools; Billings, Montana; the Chicago Connected program, and Connecticut’s Everybody Learns initiative are following this strategy and getting large numbers of families connected amid the pandemic. Unfortunately, the low-cost service offered by commercial internet service providers (ISPs) is often capped and low-quality.

2. What about those families that live in completely unserved areas or areas where internet services are too slow?

The industry and government have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the expansion of internet infrastructure in the past decade, both wireless and wired. Progress is being made, but many people still seem to be left behind, and not just in rural areas. Even in New York, the city had to sue Verizon to complete its fiber construction in low-income neighborhoods. Many districts decided in 2020 that their students simply could not wait. Often in partnership with local philanthropies or leveraging CARES Act funds, countless districts began erecting their own cell towers to broadcast a wireless internet connection to their families’ homes. Districts in Indiana, California, and Texas (just to name a few) determined that they had many of the foundational tools and infrastructure in place to connect their families, such as network staff and fiber optics infrastructure in schools. Constructing cell towers to boost the district’s existing network to families wirelessly seems like a good solution for remote learning.

3. Should the district be in the internet service business?

As the examples above show, a growing number of districts now provide internet service directly to their families. Some scoff at the idea, but others would point to the legal mandate of the district to deliver an education to every student. If, due to a shutdown, education must be delivered through the medium of the internet, the argument can be made that it’s the district’s responsibility to provide this service. Whether a K-12 district should become a provider of internet service is a decision that can only be made at the local community level, but buyers should beware of the long-term costs and evolving technologies involved with building wireless solutions (e.g. available spectrum). And, in connecting only those families with students enrolled in the district, is the town or county missing out on a bigger opportunity at inclusion of others who might benefit?

Two cell towers against blue sky

Determining a Strategy

There is a range of strategies between the free market “wait and see” approach and the district-as-ISP option. We are seeing increasing calls for high-speed internet to be treated as a public utility to hasten its ubiquity. President Biden, among others, has voiced support for doing away with laws that prevent local governments and communities from offering their own broadband service.

Hundreds of communities around the country decided (pre-pandemic) to introduce competition into their local market by forming their own service. This typically either takes the form of a public-private partnership, a municipal ISP, or a cooperative ISP, and most often by leveraging existing assets in the area and with startup capital from grants and loans to build out the remaining infrastructure in phases. In many states, municipal ISPs are prohibited, but the school district offering a service to students is not.

These new community-formed services typically have the long-term benefits of reaching those previously unserved and lowering the costs of subscriber fees in the area. The resulting spillover benefits can be huge for a community, but financial performance and sustainability must be considered. And none of this can be done overnight.

Dr. Kellie Wilks, CTO of Ector County Independent Schools District in Texas says her district is thinking about the bigger picture.

“It’s really about finding that right solution for families in the home environment,” Wilks said. “And not just for students, but for any resident.”

First Steps

If they haven’t already, districts should survey their families to gather data on who has subscribed to what internet services, how they feel about it—and if they do not have service, what is the reason for that? The resulting data can inform the formulation of specific initiatives to address gaps. Some states are also doing this. Surveys can be tricky to get to those who are disconnected, especially in a pandemic, so plan additional time to capture these voices. Another strategy for districts to continually gather this data is to add a question about home internet in regular enrollment and verification processes.

Right now, the collective urgency around home broadband is huge. Companies like SpaceX and Amazon are investing billions in the deployment of low-earth orbit satellite services. Emerging and lesser well known fiber optics ISPs are growing their businesses. Policy advocates and foundations are producing research. The federal government is distributing billions in grants to providers willing to build out in unserved areas, (e.g. RDOF, CARES). States are looking to provide direction and coordination for local efforts. Local and K-12 leaders are looking for near- and long-term solutions to connect those constituents being left behind.

Unfortunately, true solutions can take time, even with unwavering community support and consensus. And time is certainly no luxury to those students who lost so much in the past year. But with a heightened urgency and ever increasing awareness of the needs for high-speed internet, now is also the time to look to long-term strategies.

There may never be another time with such broad support for fixing the problem.

Top headline photo by Julia M. Cameron from Unsplash. Accompanying photo by Kabiur Rahman Riyad from Pexels. Terry Denoyer is a co-founder of advisory firm, Thru. He has served as a consultant and independent advisor on strategic technology initiatives for the federal government, NYC local government agencies, the NYC Department of Education, Houston ISD, Ector County ISD (TX), MIT, NYU, and many other K-12 districts. Connect with Terry on Linkedin or Twitter.