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?
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.
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.
What can you do to change this situation?
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.
Support SHLB.org. 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.
Inform yourself of what ISPs are saying vs. doing for student learners who need their support most.
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.