Mar 06 2021

6 Ways to Close the Broadband Gap Between Rural and Urban Students

What will it take to shore up the digital divide?

The pandemic has exposed a gaping digital divide between the broadband haves and have-nots, with rural students falling in the latter camp.

Last summer, EDUCAUSE and a coalition of higher education advocates and associations raised the alarm concerning the state of America’s broadband infrastructure. While campus closures have slowed the spread of COVID-19, the subsequent “emergency transition to remote learning and services has highlighted the significant digital divide that exists between students from … rural areas and their peers,” education leaders wrote in a joint letter to Congress in June.

Researchers at Michigan State University found that only 47 percent of rural students have high-speed internet access at home – compared with 77 percent of suburban students. An EdSource analysis of data from the California Public Utilities Commission found that only a third of rural Californian households subscribe to internet service, compared with 78 percent of urban homes. And, in its letter to Congress, EDUCAUSE cites research that shows nearly 20 percent of college students nationwide lack either reliable devices or strong internet service.

MORE ON EDTECH: Promote online access with hotspots, laptops and planning.

The digital divide is a problem that predates the pandemic, and it’s a problem that will persist long after it passes. Considering that some form of hybrid learning will likely continue for years to come, the broadband coverage gap is an issue that must be addressed.

“There are definitely discussions at the leadership level about what is next,” says Kate Miffitt, director for innovation at The California State University’s Office of the Chancellor. “We are more aware of the lack of access now. We are looking at strategies to extend access beyond campus.”

Here are six strategies that higher education leaders should consider to help close the digital divide.

1. Offer 24/7 Tech Support

IT leaders should be rethinking tech support strategies. Many students with unreliable internet access also tend to work evenings and weekends, when the pipeline is less congested. Tech support could be organized with this schedule in mind.

“IT can look at their support model to see if they need to have more robust support for students who don’t need to get things done between 8 and 5,” Miffitt said. “If students are having reliability issues, around-the-clock support could be one way to help with that.”

Partnering with managed service providers is one way for smaller IT departments to provide 24/7 support.

GET HELP: Augment your IT staff with a highly skilled team of certified technicians.

2. Expand Campus Wi-Fi for a Low-Cost Solution

Universities and colleges looking to support rural students with insufficient internet access at home should consider deploying outdoor or campuswide Wi-Fi if they have not already.

MORE ON EDTECH: Outdoor Wi-Fi expands access for college students.

“These are relatively low-cost solutions that can provide a lot of value,” says Rob Vietzke, vice president of network services at Internet2, a nonprofit technology consortium supporting higher education organizations.

“Typically, colleges and universities can provide good-quality, unmetered Wi-Fi,” he says. “For a student who has a limited data plan on their phone, campus Wi-Fi will give them a much better experience and it will help them keep costs down.”

3. Distribute Mobile Hotspots to Students in Need

Throughout the pandemic, CSU has given roughly 10,000 mobile hotspots to students across 23 campuses. The university was able to afford this by negotiating with a carrier to get competitive rates.

According Miffitt, this was a highly effective strategy. “Early reports from students were that it was really helpful to have those devices. For some, the hotspots are their main mode of connection,” she says.

Some campuses have even included hotspots as a part of student welcome packages. The hotspots are typically managed by the CIO’s office, which could put certain settings in place to prevent students from wasting data on Netflix streaming, for example.

4. Take Advantage of Wireless Citizens Broadband Radio Service

Vietzke recommends that more universities consider adopting Citizens Broadband Radio Service networks. CBRS is a band of the radio-frequency spectrum that can be used for shared wireless broadband. Also known as the “innovation band,” it ranges from 3650-3700 megahertz.

CBRS was historically only available to the U.S. Department of Defense. However, in recent years, the Federal Communications Commission has opened up CBRS for public and commercial use.

Widespread adoption of CBRS is expected to significantly improve Wi-Fi performance in rural areas. “Some of the older devices will not support this, but it will be built into new phones going forward. There’s an exciting opportunity there,” Vietzke says.

5. Get Professional Development for Hybrid Classroom Management

IT leadership can also work with faculty to reimagine how to deliver course materials to rural students. “You need to do faculty development on low-bandwidth teaching strategies,” Miffitt says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here are four ways to elevate your college’s blended learning experience.

“Live, synchronous activities take a lot of bandwidth if everyone is on Zoom together, or if you are doing synchronous live testing,” she says. “This can be problematic when students are using a shared hotspot, which may not deliver robust connectivity.”

Moving forward, educators need to consider low-bandwidth teaching approaches. “That means prioritizing asynchronous and flexible content and assessments,” she says. “It may mean recording a lecture versus doing a live lecture, so that if they have unreliable access they can stop and pick up later where they left off.”

6. Use Your Universities as Economic Leverage

Broadband is largely a matter of economics. Carriers overlook rural areas because there isn’t sufficient user density to make it worth investing in deployment. This is where universities can leverage their influence to shift that equation. “Higher education brings mass to the table. They can think of themselves as a market-maker in these rural communities,” Vietzke says. “They can, for instance, create a map of where their students live and compare it to the broadband map.”

It all comes down to money, and universities can use their spending power to influence change. “Higher ed institutions can invest in companies that provide services where they want them to,” Vietzke says. “If a provider knows that the university has a five-year or 10-year commitment, they might be more inclined to build in places where they otherwise would not.”

It’s clear that rural broadband will remain an issue even after the immediate issues related to the pandemic subside. By leveraging the right technologies and policies to support rural students, university IT departments can bridge coverage gaps.

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