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 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.

  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. 


5 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic post! As a teacher of students learning English, this is EXACTLY what I am seeing over and over and over again. Our most vulnerable students face more and more barriers and it reaffirms what is clear, our achievement gap is an opportunity gap and it is unconscionable. If we can publicize this issue enough maybe we can shame companies and politicians into taking action! Share this widely please!

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  2. Internet access to all students during a pandemic is no different than mandating manufacturers to shut down normal operations to make PPP. An executive order should be made to require internet access to all PK to 12 students.

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  3. Greetings Andrew.. Wanted to take a minute to thank you for your hard work over the years to get "good broadband access at home for all BVSD students"!

    I also wanted to point out that these efforts of yours started many years before Covid-19! Working towards a day when every BVSD family & student at a BVSD school has access to good quality broadband at home for an affordable price is an important & long term goal!

    Note also that the "BVSD family" needs to be aware of how fortunate we are to have your very personal commitment to supporting this important long term goal! So thank you Andrew.. you're truly an innovator & technology leader!

    On a policy front, you have created BVSD's partnership to create the ConnectMe program which is a great solution to what in truth is a complex problem.

    That said.. The elephant in the room--given the pandemic--begs a fundamental question that all US citizen's should be asking their elected officials in Washington DC right now. (..especially given the arduous time ahead for our K-12 education system as it deals with the realities of the Pandemic!)

    Why is it the FCC's laws for e-Rate funding (IE: the big federal $$$$ to support Internet access for schools) CANNOT be spent on supporting schools to use their EXISTING Internet Access capability to provide their local school community & their "at risk" families with Internet?

    Many might be unaware we are in a time that new technology technologies are forging head towards big innovations that will allow the building of private LTE wireless networks of all kinds.

    Why can't America innovate and take on this very doable challenge w/these innovative & new wireless technologies? Why can't schools "DIY" using existing Internet resource & "innovation funding" to chase "new non-profit business models" on behalf of our K-12 education system?

    As citizens, and Coloradans, we need to know who are our elected official are in Colorado's Congressional Delegation who have the responsibility & opportunity to motivate change on this issue. We can talk to them, and motivate them to take this bold effort!

    Respectfully,

    DL

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  4. Andrew, excellent post and leadership for filing the waiver in 2016. Based on the two assumptions stated within the waiver and listed below, i would like to propose that extended Internet services to the students homes does not violate E-Rate rules. There are many services besides "Internet access for learning in the campuses" that utilize the districts' network and Internet service that are not eligible services such as VOIP, cloud backup; but if no additional infrastructure is required, Districts are not required to cost allocate. In addition, Firewall services with VPN is supported and how does that differ from student access the network and Internet through methods that do not use E-Rate funds. Was this considered?
    These assumptions are very important criteria for the usage:
    (1) the school has not requested more services than are necessary for on-campus
    educational purposes; (2) no additional costs will be incurred by the Universal Service Fund (USF);
    and (3) the majority of at-home use will be during hours in which classes are not in session1
    .

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  5. Nicely said Andrew. This issue continues and vastly impacts our rural students as well. Educational equity should not be impacted by a zip code.

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