Monday, April 10, 2017

Bussing and broadband: Bringing internet to rural students

I spend more time on the internet than I'd ever care to admit, and I can think of only a few things I do that do not, at some point, involve a Google search. I used the internet to write reports and complete homework assignments as a child, to submit college applications, to spend hours clicking through Westlaw, and here I am now, writing this blog--on the internet. I, sadly, cannot imagine how I would have done many of these things without access to reliable internet. Yet, for many places in rural America, access to reliable internet, or any access at all, is not a current reality. This post aims to briefly touch on a few of the private programs and public proposals to bring broadband access to rural communities.

One Example of Rural Internet Access
In Letcher County, Kentucky, one woman commented that her college-age son doesn't come home often because he can't complete his school assignments at home without reliable internet. The closest reliable Wi-Fi is a 25-minute drive to the nearest McDonald's. Another resident described their internet as like "being trapped on an island with a bad two-way radio." Letcher County ranks in the bottom 10% of the nation's broadband infrastructure, with broadband access for only 1% of the county's land area.

Public Efforts
Letcher county is one of many rural communities that are developing proposals for the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Service program. Unfortunately, RUS is one of the programs that the new administration may be eliminating.

In March, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats offered five bills intended to bring broadband services to rural areas. One bill would require the FCC to improve the way they collect data on mobile coverage in rural areas, one would give credits for broadband access to displaced workers, one would to allow low-income students to use their parents' subsided internet service, and another would require the FCC to expand broadband access to tribal lands. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) highlighted the importance of expanding access to the internet: "Broadband offers more opportunities for more people--whether it's getting a better education, applying for new jobs, or training for a new career."

Private Efforts
A number of private companies have also started to expand services in rural and remote areas. One program I found particularly interesting was Wi-Fi enabled busses for students in rural areas.

In Berkeley County, South Carolina, some students spend over two hours a day on a bus to and from school due to the size of the sprawling, rural school district. Last month, Google introduced 28 Wi-Fi-equipped school buses and 1,700 Chromebooks for the 2,000 students in Berkeley County. Now, the two-hour bus commute is a time that students can use the Chromebooks to get online and complete assignments or catch up on school work. The idea mirrors the Silicon Valley phenomenon of tech companies providing Wi-Fi-enabled busses for employees commuting from San Fransisco so that employees can use the commuting hours to work instead of sit in traffic.

Google refers to the school bus program as a "Rolling Study Hall" that hopes to "bridge the digital divide" in the school district by acting as "an extended classroom" and addressing "the needs of students that don't have WiFi or Internet access in their home." Google is also looking for ways to expand the use of the high-tech busses. When they aren't shuttling students, they might go to places such as community centers of fellowships halls so that other members of the community can take advantage of the internet access.

Berkeley County is not the first, and probably not the last, school district to have the "Rolling Study Hall" program. The first program was in the Appalachian foothills in Caldwell County, North Carolina. Google also has data centers in both of these counties, and hopes to expand the program to other rural locations soon.

6 comments:

dnlauber said...

Thank you for such an informative post, Courtney! US News Report & World Report reported in August 2016 that rural schools are improving despite continued obstacles (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-08-01/rural-schools-improving-despite-continued-obstacles). Around one-third of the country's approximately 100,000 public schools are located in rural areas, and they enroll about one-quarter of K-12 students – nearly 12 million in total. As you note in your post, internet is such an integral part of not only society, but education today.

More rural school districts than ever before have access to broadband as a result of the Obama administration's focus on getting internet to more schools and libraries through the ConnectED initiative (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/07/16/obamas-connecthome-aims-to-bridge-digital-divide), as well as the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/12/11/fcc-approves-historic-15-billion-funding-boost-for-e-rate-program).

Your blog post touches on the potential of the new administration cutting funding to programs such as RUS. While internet access is a large piece of the puzzle to helping advance rural education, the Trump Administration also brings more generalized threats to public rural schools. The new education budget harms rural communities by focusing on the expansion of vouchers through a $1.4 billion increase in school choice funding. (http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-education-trump-wants-more-money-for-1489667030-htmlstory.html) Vouchers can be particularly damaging to the public school system in rural areas. In rural communities, it’s challenging to maintain a voucher system because there are not enough students to attend a variety of schools in the area. Rural public school staff already make tough choices due to low enrollment. A school choice system would likely exacerbate the problem, forcing schools to make decisions about eliminating classes, cutting school activities, and reducing student supports. (https://thinkprogress.org/trumps-budget-leaves-rural-america-behind-28d24564b8e7).

Jenna said...

A really great article that explores some really interesting solutions to this rural problem. While my first thought about the Wi-Fi busses was about how great of a program this seemed like, my second thought was about how I, if I went to one of these schools, would never actually be able to use the Internet while riding the bus as I get incredibly car sick. So, while this is a truly inventive idea that I am sure will work for many, I think that also having the busses go to more sedentary places when they are not driving children to and from school will help them serve even more members in the community.

On a different note, while I appreciate the innovation of private companies and their solutions, I think that most of us would agree that the government itself needs to be doing more in this arena. While I hope that the Trump administration will not cut RUS and that at least some of the bills introduced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be successful, I sadly do not think either of these things is very likely.

ofilbrandt said...

My recent blog post touched upon funding for school broadband access so I appreciate your specific examples of people struggling to find internet connections. In truth, similar to you, I struggled to imagine how difficult it is to get internet. I understood it as a child as you just have to get your house hooked up, forgetting that the requisite infrastructure must fist be in place.

The Lifeline Program is administered by the Federal Communications Commission and aims to provide grants to companies that build infrastructure to low-income areas. The Current Secretary just stalled the program so stay tuned on that. In California, we have a California Lifeline Program and the Advanced Services Fund. Both do similar things as the Federal Lifeline. My point is that people are aware and making solid efforts to close the digital divide, it just keeps getting stalled for political reasons. Which is sad.

Mollie M said...

I can't imagine trying to find a job without internet; even lots of entry level jobs take applicants online. I wonder, and this is going to make me sound old, but are most children these days born with enough access to the internet and technology that they just know how to use it? Is that a stupid question? Are there children born isolated enough to not learn how to interact with technology the way the rest of their peers do? I used to work at a community center where I taught a class on technology and how to use a computer and internet. With the middle-aged and older population (mostly English language learners) I usually had to start by describing a computer and the internet and how they both work. I wonder if there are people, probably most would live in a rural area, who not only lack access but also lack the ability to use technology and the internet in the way they might like to. This could be especially isolating, and could be a huge barrier in applying for a particular job, even if a person is perfectly qualified.

Mollie M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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