- School district leaders in Utah are trying to kickstart a plan that would extend the state's broadband network to cover rural households and highways, according to The Hechinger Report.
- However, while they have the support and can get the funding, these leaders still lack a federal license to use spectrum that carries mobile internet for a certain geographic location. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which holds spectrum auctions, has a choice: Does it try and sell access to make money, or does it grant access to these rural school districts for free?
- If the FCC doesn't give the spectrum licenses to rural districts, school officials can consider a complex waiver process. But even if they do give the rural districts these licenses, the article says, it's unclear how much the existing homework gap will shrink.
With education's continued embrace of digital learning and technology, broadband has become an even greater priority for schools and districts. And in recent years, there's been lots of progress: A recent report found that 96% of the nation's public schools have sufficient high-speed internet for digital learning to be possible. However, the remaining 4% — roughly 1,350 schools, most of which are in rural areas — are still off the grid.
Outside of schools, households around the country — again, mostly in rural areas — internet isn't a given. As of April, the U.S. Department of Education said of students aged 5-17 who live in remote rural districts, 18% had no broadband access at home. In cities and suburbs, this figure dropped to 13% and 7%, respectively. So, in states like Utah, students leave school and can't complete their assignments, many of which are now online, or access the same learning opportunities as their more advantaged classmates. This disparity is forcing students to do their homework in unconventional places like restaurants or parking lots, where there's a promise of free high-speed internet.
This isn't the first mention of the FCC in addressing the school broadband issue. The commission's E-rate program gives schools benefits regarding up-to-date infrastructure, which can support a digital-first classroom. But while this funding has been said to help schools struggling to get on the grid, the organization has been criticized for its slowness in responding to requests or for denying too many of them.
Ed tech and digital learning hasn't stopped to wait for less-advantaged households and communities to catch up. And with major organizations wielding a great deal of power in assisting areas in getting online, students' abilities to reach their maximum potential remains in limbo. As school leaders wait for the FCC to decide its position, they can look to local partnerships to boost STEM and ed tech opportunities for students. And in classes where not all students are equally advantaged, teachers could, in the meantime, try to accommodate those who may not be able to complete assignments that require an online connection.