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High speed internet and free internet meet

Do-it-yourself broadband connects rural students at no charge
GREEN IS GOOD—In this propagation map of Albemarle County, colors show signal quality for broadband. Green is nearly unobstructed.
GREEN IS GOOD—In this propagation map of Albemarle County, colors show signal quality for broadband. Green is nearly unobstructed.

Free internet access at home will soon be a reality for students in Albemarle County Public Schools.

The district of 14,000 students spread across 726 square miles in central Virginia tapped a little-known public resource to fund a countywide broadband network, paving the way for others to do the same in an effort to ensure students have equal access to online learning.

Half of Albemarle’s students live in “drastically rural” areas where commercial internet providers don’t offer services, says district CIO Vince Scheivert. Between 20 and 30 percent of students lack broadband, he says.

Scheivert’s team is building the network with backing from the Educational Broadband Service, a public resource created (under a different name) in the 1960s to broadcast educational TV programs in schools. Most districts did not use the service, and leased it out to large carriers.

But some districts, including Albemarle, kept their access. And in 2004, when the FCC allowed the service to be used for internet, the district took advantage.

Five million American households with school-age children lack high-speed internet needed for completing school assignments, according to the Pew Research Center. And that limits students’ ability to apply to college, find jobs, and “become engaged digital citizens,” says Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE.

Arkansas is among just a few states that implemented high-speed internet to every school. The project involved more than 20 telecommunications companies, according to newsite ArkansasOnline.com.

“We don’t decide who gets educational resources in schools based upon their address,” Scheivert says. “We are progressively moving toward a more digitally based curriculum and workforce. We want to make sure we have the capacity to provide students with the access, the resources and the materials they need in order to be successful not only now, but for their entire educational career.”

Steps to building

Albemarle partnered with a technology manufacturer to build the network. Each of the district’s 26 schools will be equipped with tools to spread broadband to homes in a 2.5-mile radius. To fill the gaps, local police, fire and EMS departments will allow the district to provide broadband from their communication towers.

This spared Albemarle from having to build new towers at $100,000 apiece, which other districts may have to do to develop a far-reaching network.

In 2017-18, Albemarle will distribute home routers and connection units to an initial 1,000 households out of the 6,500 in the district. Scheivert aims to complete the project, which began in 2013, between 2019 and 2020. The do-it-yourself network comes at no cost to families or taxpayers because the district used existing funding and staffing.

The project will cost the district about $800,000 total—less than it previously cost to put Wi-Fi in every school, Scheivert says. Replicating Albemarle’s initiative is “highly feasible” for other districts that can access Educational Broadband Service, Scheivert says. He recommends investing in a small base station to test it out, and seeing what local resources may be available.

“We’ve been talking about the digital divide for a really long time,” Scheivert says. “If we have internet capacity at Mount Everest to broadcast a selfie, a kid should be able to have it in their house to do their homework.”

Creative solutions

In June, President Donald Trump proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative to enhance broadband access for rural America. Meanwhile, a handful of districts and programs have devised creative solutions to close the digital divide.

In California’s Coachella Valley USD in 2014, former superintendent Darryl Adams placed routers on buses and stationed more throughout the district after school to provide students with home internet access. The Wi-Fi on Wheels program was part of a $41 million bond measure that also funded iPads for the district’s 18,000 students.

Before Wi-Fi on Wheels between 30 to 40 percent of students in the 1,250-square-mile district did not have internet access at home, Adams says. “Students needed a way to connect, and to eliminate the homework gap,” Adams says. “If your students don’t have devices and connectivity, they will be left behind.”