Access for All: Making Broadband a Utility

broadband access

By Tom Vander Ark and David Irwin

Wireless hot spots are a bandaid, not a solution; they are really hard to find right now, and if you are lucky to get one, good luck connecting it to an available network, or not running out of allocated monthly data.

Equipping school buses with Wi-Fi and then parking them in areas with large populations of students, certainly a headline grabber and perhaps a short term solution, but what happens when those buses need to transport kids?

School districts building their own wireless broadband towers and operating LTE networks?  Admirable, but should school districts really be in the business as serving as a telecom provider? Not to mention possible issues of using eRate funding for connectivity that leaves school grounds.

Some communities like Chicago want to make student home broadband permanent, partly funded by philanthropic organizations, but what happens if/when donor funding runs out?

The recent COVID-19 pandemic that led to all US students learning from home, instantly magnified the massive home broadband connectivity gap.  According to the National School Boards Association (NSBA), 37% of rural students and 21% of urban students lack home Internet access; and 35% of Native American students, 30% of Black students, and 26% of Latinx students have inadequate Internet access at home compared to only 18% of white students.

Additionally, more than 400,000 educators don’t have adequate Internet connectivity to teach from home. Have you seen the pictures/videos of teachers conducting class from Wi-Fi equipped parking lots?

With so much health and economic turmoil resulting from this pandemic, perhaps a sliver of a silver lining is the sudden attention on the broadband gap across the United States.  Almost daily there are new Federal and state bills being introduced to provide infrastructure funding (i.e’, President Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan) to close the broadband gap.

It’s important to understand why this gap exists in the first place.  The major providers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Direct) use the term “economics of linear density” to tell us it is commercially unviable to deploy network infrastructure at affordable consumer rates in a rural environment without some form of subsidy, whether internal or external.  So without some type of subsidy or grant, reliable and affordable high speed broadband is likely.

If the funding is made available (and likely that many funding sources will be available), what next?  Just give it to the big broadband providers and hope quality and affordability happens? Or are there other options for providing broadband, similar to the evolutionary path of public utilities like water, electricity and sewer?

And then what technologies do you use to provide high speed broadband connectivity? Deploy “future-proof” fiber-to-the-home (FTTH)? Take advantage of the emerging 5G technologies?  Bet on Elon Musk’s new Starlink low orbit satellite network?

And finally, what role does a school district play in this?  The city/county/municipality governments (many of which are land owners that will need to grant right-of-way passage for the construction of fiber conduits) the district serves?  The business community with a vested interest in high speed, reliable broadband necessary for economic development?

One community is tackling all of these questions right now.

Odessa Case Study

Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) serves 34,000 west Texas students. Ector County includes Odessa and is in the heart of the Permian Basin, a major oil and gas field.  If you are a fan of the TV show Friday Night Lights, it’s the home of Permian High School for which a book that became a movie that became the series, is based.

Like many other districts across the United States, they moved swiftly on remote learning in March, including an offline, paper-based option, but it became apparent that many families were disconnected.

After a few months of remote learning, ECISD surveyed their teachers in May on individual students’ connectivity. The teachers were in daily contact with their students and so were in excellent position to assess which students had reliable connectivity (always, rarely, sometimes or never).

The results were alarming. One out of five ECISD students rarely or never has reliable internet access at home–and these students are located all over the county.

The problem that surfaced during the pandemic is a lack of affordable, high-speed options for residents in Ector County.

Dr. Scott Muri, Superintendent of ECISD, wants to be solution-oriented. “This finding from the staff internet connectivity survey launched a significant stream of work within the district to address broadband access gaps in the region,” Dr. Muri writes.

“We started with a baseline assessment to better understand the pockets within the districts that students were residing in but did not have high-speed internet access. Now, equipped with a map of areas without coverage, we have started working with local government officials to identify creative, long-term solutions (versus short-term, “bandaid” fixes) to move toward broadband access for every family in Ector county.”

Rural Ector County is predominantly served by fixed wireless and satellite broadband providers. These are generally considered the slowest and least reliable of broadband options.

In West and South Odessa, more than half of respondents without broadband say it is not available where they live, while more than a third say the available service was too expensive.

The oil companies in the area also need reliable broadband, especially during the recent oil collapse in the region. That’s one advantage that Ector County and the district might have in helping to craft public-private partnerships that they are exploring now.

The Path Forward

In partnership with ECISD, the city of Odessa, the local colleges, the Odessa Development Corporation, the Permian Strategic Partnership (PSP, which represents the twenty largest oil and gas companies in the region) and other business, civic and community groups, we are laser determining how the different puzzle pieces illustrated in the framework below fit together to form the best solution for the region.

One thing is for sure is there is no quick fix for realizing fast, reliable and affordable broadband, but now is the time to take action and think through the right, long term sustainable options.

For more, see:

David Irwin is the former K-12 Education Lead at Gartner Inc. and recently co-founded thru, a planning, advisory and research firm serving K-12 education

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.