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Administrators must champion Wi-Fi hotspot availability

Schools pursue federal Lifeline Broadband Program, Next Century Cities, National Digital Inclusion Alliance and other solutions

As more teaching and learning activities go digital—including homework assignments, organizing classrooms through learning management systems and keeping parents informed through portals—district leaders must find ways to provide 24/7 internet availability to all their students.

School officers across the country—such as Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology services at Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and Sheryl Abshire, CTO for the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, Louisiana—report that youths camp out in school parking lots at night or before school starts to connect to the wireless signal because they lack reliable home access.

“The student who has to apply to college sitting at McDonald’s trying to do it on their mobile phone is going to be at a great disadvantage compared to a student who has robust access with a device in a more affluent home,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.

The updated federal Lifeline Broadband Program provides subsidies, paid for by telecom companies through the Universal Service Fund, to low-income families nationwide to help them afford broadband service.

While schools can’t apply for Lifeline dollars, administrators can let eligible families know that the program exists, says Tracy Weeks, executive director of SETDA.

Pockets of answers

Other solutions include groups like Next Century Cities and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which are nonprofit groups that work with policymakers and local leaders to make affordable, high-speed internet access available.

For example, Next Century Cities worked with partners to fund and open a facility with free internet service in an economically depressed neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky.

Communities and schools are also teaming up to find new ways to provide Wi-Fi to students and homes that don’t have it. For example, the city of Charlottesville in Virginia has partnered with the local Albemarle County School District to put free Wi-Fi in local laundromats to give families internet access.

And Huntsville City Schools in Alabama added hotspots to buses, which not only gave students more screen time but also resulted in a 70 percent drop in discipline problems on buses.

Toolkit tips

For administrators who want to take a more assertive lead on tech issues for their district, the Digital Equity Action Toolkit from CoSN suggests:

  • Partner with local businesses on Wi-Fi access for learning.
  • Make the most of school assets.
  • Seek mobile hotspot programs and/or affordable Long Term Evolution standards for wireless connectivity .
  • Take advantage of special broadband offerings.
  • Repurpose Educational Broadband Service, an FCC-allocated spectrum for schools in distinct geographic areas.
  • Create a mesh network that provides flexible ways for wireless-enabled devices to communicate.
  • Administrators who don’t spearhead universal internet availability will not only see students fall behind, but also make it harder for teachers to reach goals. The latest research from the FCC’s Broadband Task Force found that almost 70 percent of homework assignments required broadband access to complete—a figure that will likely rise.

To help districts with their efforts, check out the tools available from CoSN, ISTE and SETDA. See the Digital Equity Action Toolkit.

Editor’s note: CIO Hot Topic is produced in collaboration with CoSN.


Robert Lerose is a freelance writer in New York.