Enlarge /. A student who studied with two friends on his laptop after class was canceled.
Phillipe Francois | Getty Images
Like many students around the world, Nora Medina adapts to online learning. But Medina, a high school graduate in Quincy, Washington, who also takes classes at a local community college, faces an additional challenge: she doesn't have reliable Internet service at home. She lives 7 miles outside the city, where she says that neither cable nor DSL internet is available.
She can access the Internet on her phone and her family has a wireless hotspot. However, she says the service is not suitable for online homework. "It's a hit and miss," she says. "Sometimes I can watch a video, but sometimes I can't even update a page or it takes minutes for something to load on a page."
Washington Governor Jay Inslee said this week that state schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Quincy High School is still planning how best to help students end the year. But Medina's classes at Big Bend Community College have moved online. "I just hope that the hot spot works and I wish the best for my last quarter," she says. "If that doesn't work, I'll do my work from my car in the parking lot in the library to access the WiFi."
Medina is one of millions of people in the United States who do not lack reliable broadband internet at home, either because they cannot afford it or simply because their home is unavailable. This digital divide has opened up fewer and fewer educational and economic opportunities for children and adults. With schools, libraries, and workplaces closed during the coronavirus pandemic, those without broadband have difficulty accessing school work, job vacancies, jobless claims, and video chat services that keep others in touch with friends and family. For those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, working from home is not an option.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 650 broadband Internet service providers, telephone companies and trade associations have signed their commitment from Keep America Connected not to stop Internet service due to pandemic financial problems, to waive late fees and to allow free access to Wi. Fi services. Comcast said it would provide low-income households with free broadband access for 60 days, usually at a cost of $ 10 a month, and Charter said it would provide free internet access to students for 60 days. However, these offers are only available in locations where these companies already provide services.
It is difficult to assess the extent of the problem. In a report from last year, the FCC estimated that 21.3 million people had no access to broadband Internet services at the end of 2017. However, the report, which is based on self-reported data from broadband providers, assumes that an entire census block has a service if a A single broadband provider claims to offer services anywhere within the census block, even if most households in the region do not receive a service can. Critics have long pointed out that this method is likely to underestimate the number of people without broadband access.
A report published by Microsoft last year estimated that 162.8 million people in the United States – about half the population – do not use broadband internet, either because it is unavailable or where they live cannot or do not want to pay for the access. A survey commissioned by Microsoft and the National 4-H Council found that 20 percent of rural youth don't have access to broadband at home, regardless of whether it's available where they live.
How schools deal with it
The digital divide challenges teachers and administrators who know that some students cannot easily follow online lessons. Schools in Berkeley, California closed in mid-March, but the various online classes didn't start until Monday. Meanwhile, public school superintendent Brent Stephens said officials need to figure out how to accommodate students with special needs, adjust union contracts, and plan classes for 16,000 students.
Stephens, however, says that "justice was also a problem". He estimates that about 5 percent of the district's students don't have reliable Internet access at home and about 30 percent need devices that are suitable for online learning. He says the district has distributed more than 2,000 Chromebooks to students and ordered wireless hotspots for students who do not have reliable internet access at home, although it is not clear when these hotspots will be available. In the meantime, the district is still considering how students can get learning resources without internet access.
Some schools use low-tech solutions. The Bandon School District on Oregon's south coast plans to deliver and collect physical packs of study materials and assignments to 18 percent of students that superintendent Doug Ardiana says doesn't have an internet connection at home.
When the governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, closed schools on March 12, the Bandon schools sent out "additional" learning tasks that did not have to be returned. Schools are now closed for the rest of the school year and schools are expected to offer distance learning programs, including graded assignments.
To prepare students for these tasks, teachers film lessons that students can watch online from home. "It's a whole new thing," said Courtney Wehner, a third-grade teacher at the Ocean Crest Elementary in Bandon. "I'm not used to hearing my voice recorded."
For students without Internet access, the school sends material packages home either by post or with school bus drivers wearing protective equipment. Students who can use them receive DVDs or USB sticks with the recorded lectures. Wehner says that includes all of her students. Others must rely on written material.
Wehner says the parents of her students, who lack broadband internet, will take photos of completed tasks with their cell phones and send them to them for grading. District students who cannot return jobs this way return completed jobs with bus drivers or the mail, and someone in their school, who is also wearing protective clothing, scans the jobs and uploads them to a server that teachers can access from home. The teachers check and correct the tasks and print them out. The corrected tasks are returned to the students three days later.
A $ 20 billion fix for a $ 70 billion problem
The FCC has spent billions in recent years to close the digital divide. However, this gap remains in part because the agency has repeatedly underestimated the scope of the problem, says FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "How do we know we're sending money to the right places?" She asks.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which has replaced a previous initiative called Connect America Fund, provides carriers with money to build broadband in communities that have no access to connections at least 10 megabits per second. It is planned to send $ 20.4 billion to carriers over a 10-year period to expand rural broadband access. According to John Windhausen Jr., Executive Director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the Fiber Broadband Association is estimated to cost $ 70 billion last year to bring fiber networks to 90 percent of the US by 2025.
Aside from network operators' commitments not to interrupt the service, the FCC has allowed libraries and public schools to offer public WiFi while the buildings are closed without risking FCC funding, and has a large portion of the spectrum for unlicensed WiFi use provided instead of auctioning licenses for it; Proponents say this could facilitate the delivery of broadband wireless services in rural or low-income areas.
Critics say, however, that the FCC has hindered efforts to close the digital divide in recent years. Last year the FCC decided to auction off the radio spectrum reserved for schools to the highest bidder. According to Windhausen, schools, municipalities and non-profit organizations will find it more difficult to use this frequency spectrum to create their own mobile services.
The FCC, chaired by Ajit Pai, has opposed the expansion of Lifeline, a 35-year-old program that subsidizes access to low-income households' telecommunications services. However, the lifeline has remained intact. In February 2019, a federal appeals court overturned Pais' attempt to limit broadband subsidies for tribal residents. Another Pai proposal that would have prevented poor people from buying Lifeline plans from network resellers has been tacitly rejected after widespread conviction. Pai continued in mid-2019 with the proposal to limit overall universal service spending, including Lifeline, but the plan has not yet been finalized.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.