Using satellite Internet to bridge the 'homework gap'
An underdog tech option can help bring connectivity to disadvantaged rural areas
For rural school districts, securing and maintaining high-speed internet can present significant challenges.
To start, cost can be a factor. The Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) third annual "E-rate and Infrastructure" report, which surveyed 531 district and tech officials to measure how much progress has been made toward the school connectivity goals set by the Obama administration, found that 66% of schools have reached the goal. Some 25% of respondents said that "none of their schools currently meets the FCC's short-term goal."
Sub-par connections are also an issue. Because of a lack of infrastructure and competition, schools can be charged thousands of dollars every month for connections that are slow and unsteady. Though there are some existing FCC policies that are meant to mitigate the problem, including the "Connect America Fund," loopholes also exist that allow telecom providers to ignore districts falling outside of their current coverage areas.
That’s where satellite Internet might help.
In the FCC’s spring 2015 report entitled "The 2014 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report," the agency mentioned the feasibility of using satellite Internet as an alternative for rural areas.
Satellite connections don’t require any kind of terrestrial infrastructure. For some districts, they’re an affordable alternative that can help bridge what FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calls the "homework gap:" a dearth of decent Internet connections for low-income students at home. That lack of access can prevent students from completing assignments online.
Tony Bardo, assistant vice president of government solutions for Hughes, a company that provides satellite internet connections, says that satellites are a viable option for three kinds of K-12 schools: those that are rural, those that aren’t served by any kind of high-speed cable or fiber terrestrial connection, and those that might have a terrestrial connection but are seeking to also install a backup option, in case of service disruptions or for surge capacity.
“School district administrators may often have both served and unserved schools within the district and may have contracts with cable and fiber lighters to connect the 'served' schools, but not the rural sites,” Bardo said. Satellites can help bring those 'unserved' schools back to right side of the digital divide, he explained.
In rural areas, satellite television can also be more popular than fiber or cable due to a lack of infrastructure. And the FCC’s E-rate program can offset the cost of satellite Internet connections, meaning that schools can obtain reimbursement through the program.
But some experts, like EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell, disagree. His non-profit organization focuses on upgrading Internet access in U.S. public schools. According to Marwell, satellite connections aren’t a viable option due to limitations on bandwidth and what he calls “latency” with currently available satellite systems.
“This may change in the medium to long term as research and investment continues,” he said, “but for now, we believe that fiber, cable, or terrestrial fixed wireless technology (not to be confused with mobile broadband services) will be the right choice for schools.”
To him, satellite systems are a better interim solution, decided on a case-by-case basis.
Bardo, however, thinks satellite connections get a bad rap and lack popularity largely due to outdated perceptions. “The old opinion that satellite is ‘old, slow, and expensive’ still persists,” he said. “This is no longer the case.”
Bardo says modern speeds for satellite connections are comparable or sometimes faster than DSL connections. Hughes offers service with a download speed that tops out at 15 MBPS, which is similar to DSL.
But it is possible to bump up speeds by using more than one satellite antenna. With two or more subscriptions to a 15 MBPS plan, a 30 MBPS connection can be achieved.
One drawback, however, is that the technology can only be used in areas where a customer has a clear view of the southern sky, something that presents geographic challenges. Some canyon and valley locations, for example, may not be able to access a satellite connection — or even a building in a densely wooded area, forest, or low-lying building among high-rises.
Around the U.S., the idea isn’t exactly catching on.
Marwell parsed 2015 E-rate data from the FCC and found that fewer than 50 districts specified that they were requesting E-rate funds for satellite-based services.
“Satellite technology may — and does today — have a significant role in bringing residential broadband to very rural areas,” Marwell noted. “Even though we don’t believe the trade-offs work out well in school buildings, it’s still an important technology to keep in mind when addressing the ‘homework gap’ in rural areas.”
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