Dec 16 2020

A Final Frontier of the Digital Divide: Getting Wi-Fi to the Most Remote Areas

A new approach to providing broadband through satellites gives reliable internet access to far-flung communities — including a Texas school district.

When leaders of Ector County Independent School District learned in March that 39 percent of their students lacked reliable broadband access at home, they went to work on finding a solution. It was crucial that students be able to connect to remote instruction.

The district secured funding from philanthropies. It developed business partnerships to get low-income families in Odessa, a large city that’s the county seat, free broadband access through June 2021. It bought mobile hotspots and installed cellphone towers on school buildings.

But even those efforts fell short of addressing the Wi-Fi access needs of students whose families live in the county’s most remote areas, Superintendent Scott Muri says. Then the Permian Strategic Partnership, one of ECISD’s local partners, helped with a more celestial solution.

ECISD will be the first school district in the nation to use Starlink, the broadband service from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Starlink uses low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology to provide internet access in faraway areas.

The district’s digital divide “was a crisis for us,” Muri says. “We couldn’t educate kids in a healthy manner if they didn’t have broadband in their home, because they weren’t coming to school every day.”

The pencil and paper packet of work those students would receive was not the same as the experiences of students who “had access to their teachers in a virtual world,” he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how administrators are address issues of equity during online learning at edtechmag.com/k12/EquityOnline.

LEO Satellites Ensure Every Student Has Reliable Internet Access

Getting broadband from space is not new, but SpaceX and other companies are taking a new approach to providing that service. Starlink uses LEO satellites, which transmit data in less time than satellites that are farther out, according to Bloomberg. “And because signals can travel more rapidly through the vacuum of space than through fiber-optic cables, LEO satellites have the potential to rival or possibly exceed the fastest ground-based networks,” the news outlet reported.

It won’t take long for some Ector County families to get internet access through Starlink. ECISD is piloting its Starlink partnership in January, starting with 45 families who live within a 10-square-mile radius of each other and have no form of home internet access, Muri says. If all goes well, 135 families will have internet access with Starlink technology by the end of the pilot in January 2022, he says.

Scott Muri, Superintendent, Ector County Independent School District
We couldn’t educate kids in a healthy manner if they didn’t have broadband in their home, because they weren’t coming to school every day.

Scott Muri Superintendent, Ector County Independent School District

“At that point, we will have a really good understanding of the success of the pilot program and be able to make decisions about how or if we move forward with that technology in our school district,” he says.

For now, about 35 percent of ECISD students are participating in classes remotely, Muri says, citing the most recent numbers. The district is surveying families again to get up-to-date numbers about their internet availability.

The pandemic-spurred shift to remote learning exposed just how deep the digital divide is. Leaders of many schools had to scramble to purchase computing devices for students and to address internet access disparities.

ECISD has also been ahead of the curve when it comes to equipping students with digital devices and ensuring that the district infrastructure can handle it all. Since April, the district has secured 37,000 devices for its 34,000 students, Muri says. There is also a fiber ring around ECISD, ensuring high-speed internet for the schools.

While the district is in good shape, he said, “it’s some of our families who are not. All of this effort is about ensuring that our families have the type of internet access they need.”