Sunday, October 4, 2020

Inadequate Internet May Impact Children’s Lives for Decades to Come

We are four weeks into the 20/21 virtual school year, and the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) IT Service Desk phones, chat, and email are perpetually lighting up.

Students are having video/audio quality challenges in their virtual classrooms at an alarming rate, largely due to inadequate internet services.  

How could this be? BVSD has been working to eliminate the Digital Divide for half a decade. We’ve helped connect most through ConnectME, a district contract with Comcast for Internet Essentials, and hotspot deployments. Having students connected means the end of the learning gap, right?

Unfortunately not. What has surfaced in Boulder has also emerged across our country. Inadequate internet service is the reality for far too many families. Providing students with inadequate internet allows the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to communicate to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they are doing their part in supporting underserved communities while obtaining free marketing and public praise. In reality, the minimal internet offerings these companies provide are denying some of our most vulnerable students access to their education. This furthers the equity issues that some children already face in this country.

 BVSD has a contract with Comcast to pay the $9.95/month for internet services for qualifying students. With a 25 Mbps (Megabits-per-second) download and an unadvertised 3 Mbps upload speed, this program works for only one child downloading homework. But when two, three, or more students try to attend virtual meetings simultaneously, the upload speeds can’t handle the video and crash the learning system, disrupting remote learning and critical lessons.

3 Mbps upload speed is not enough for most households!  

Comcast says that 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload will handle two students with “good digital hygiene,” but that is not what we see. Many of our students are experiencing connection failures at this low upload speed. BVSD is trying to negotiate a new contract with Comcast to pay for higher upload speeds. However, that agreement is currently stalled in the Comcast bureaucracy. Comcast says they have no way to increase the speeds for eligible students collectively, which means only households that can afford to pay for the higher-speed internet individually can get reliable access to remote learning. There has to be a better business plan and solution. 

LiveWire Networks, the company behind ConnectME, provides free 25 Mbps download/5 Mbps upload speeds to qualifying families and has agreed to increase upload speeds further for families with three or more students at a competitive price that will be subsidized by BVSD.

CenturyLink, our other primary provider of high-speed internet in the Boulder area, turned its back on students when it shut down its own $9.95 Internet Basics program in 2017. Its lack of investment in its networks in some areas around Boulder leaves it unable to upgrade its paid DSL subscribers to acceptable upload speeds beyond 2Mbps, crippling our teachers and students from originating video in a clear, reliable way. 

Adequate internet access is a civil rights issue of our day. Students depend on the internet to access education safely during the pandemic. The privately held ISPs’ inability, or unwillingness, to ensure our kids’ civil rights are met is a mockery. Adequate internet access appears to be a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege that allows the haves to access their education and the have-nots to fall deeper within the opportunity gap, which is simply not acceptable. 

Why do we allow this? Why does the State of Colorado put roadblocks up to prevent school districts from providing internet to students’ homes in need directly? If you look into 2005’s Colorado State Senate Bill 152, you will understand how ISPs lobbied to codify rules to boost themselves at the expense of our most vulnerable. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can also help solve the problem by ensuring that E-Rate funding is available to provide students access to the internet at home. Why, then, does the FCC limit the E-Rate program from funding internet to students’ homes during a pandemic where students must have adequate internet to learn virtually? BVSD’s 2016 FCC E-Rate Waiver Request, if granted, would remove this barrier, but the FCC has declined to act on it for four years. 

We can and must do better, or the gap between the haves and have-nots in our society will expand at an ever-increasing pace. The fallout for the lack of equitable education today may impact these children’s lives for decades to come.

What can you do to change this situation? 

  1. Support BVSD’s 2016 FCC E-Rate Waiver Request, written with student attorneys’ help at CU Law School’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic. If the waiver is granted, BVSD would be allowed to provide internet into housing developments where there is a high need. The national public comment period ended four years ago, yet the FCC has still not ruled on the request.  Contact the FCC commissioners by clicking here.

  2. Support The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition team is the primary organization in Washington DC leading the efforts to change this situation. They are advocating for E-Rate rule changes and federal law modernization in proceedings before the FCC, Capitol Hill, and the Executive Branch.

  3. Inform yourself of what ISPs are saying vs. doing for student learners who need their support most.

  4. Contact your elected officials at both the state and federal levels to advocate for change in the laws that are roadblocks to helping students in need. 

As a community, we must inform our elected and appointed officials of these challenges created by decades of rules and laws that have become roadblocks, not enablers, of learning for all. Inadequate internet for the underserved is a societal issue created over years of ill-informed policies primarily driven by the ISP industry. Inadequate internet for our most vulnerable students hurts us all in the long run. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

What is REVAS? (Remote Education Video Audio System)

As school starts in Boulder Valley School District, our teachers are coming back to be greeted by REVAS. REVAS is the Remote Education Video Audio System created by IT over the summer with a simple goal in mind - To create a cost-effective way for teachers to better connect with their students who are learning remotely. Initially designed for hybrid learning where some students are local in the classroom and others are at home, it is being proven to be effective when all students are learning remotely as well. 

REVAS consists of a high definition 1080p wide-angle camera with dual high sensitivity microphones mounted on a 60” tripod powered by a Chromebook using Google Meet. There is a 27” monitor sitting at the base of the tripod to make it easier for teachers to see their remote students via grid view. Remote students see and hear the teacher more clearly due to the HD camera and dual omnidirectional microphones.  

In cases where a dedicated Chromebook is not available, the camera/microphones can be connected directly to a teacher Chromebook enhancing the audio/video student’s experience.   

REVAS is portable! Many teachers are now taking them home, allowing teaching to originate safely from their own homes. 

When being used to originate instruction from a BVSD classroom, REVAS can be connected directly into the Audio Enhancement system now in most classrooms, thanks to the support of our community for bond-funded classroom upgrades installed over the last three years. When REVAS is connected into Audio Enhancement, remote students are heard through speakers in the ceiling, further making it easier for those in the classroom to listen to their remote counterparts. And when teachers wear the lanyard microphone, it is easier for those local and remote to hear better. 

Although technology is not the only solution for remote learning, REVAS is a critical component of the overall learning experience our teachers are leading at Boulder Valley School District.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Students Win in ConnectME (My Education) Approval

On April 14, 2020, the Boulder Valley School District School (BVSD) Board took a giant leap forward to ensure the digital divide, otherwise known as the homework gap, is dramatically reduced for the students of our district. They did this by approving a long term contract with Live Wire Networks to provide over the air broadband to qualifying students for free. This public-private partnership is the culmination of 5+ years of work to close the digital divide in BVSD. It has taken a broad team to support the pilot as we slowly progressed to a scalable district-wide solution.

When the major internet providers did not provide free internet to those in need, and the FCC rules would not allow BVSD to run E-Rated internet into the Boulder Housing Partner facilities, a new way to connect students was needed. As a result, ConnectME launched and Live Wire Networks leaned-in as a partner, putting their FCC-approved equipment on three schools in Lafayette, CO, allowing them to connect over 50 qualified students to free internet.

My drive to close the digital divide has always been about ensuring our district provides every student an equitable opportunity to learn. Our current situation with the Coronavirus and remote learning has shed an intense light on the homework gap and how it is real, even in BVSD. This national blog put out by SHLB (Schools-Health-Libraries-Broadband) further explains the challenges students face without internet access.

Boulder Valley School District has set a local, state, and national precedent in solving the digital divide that we hope others will use as a model to build upon. In addition to Live Wire Networks providing free internet to eligible students, BVSD will also share in the revenue generated by providing an over the air alternative for internet access to the BVSD communities in Boulder, Nederland, Broomfield, Erie, Louisville, Lafayette, and Superior.

I appreciate this tremendous team effort, and I am pleased we will now move from pilot to full implementation. As always, please share your thoughts by chiming in below.

Andrew, CIO Boulder Valley School District