Nov 17 2020

Closing the Connectivity Gap with Expanded, Optimized Networks

School districts across the country are driving connectivity with partnerships and network optimization solutions.

In the era of remote learning, school districts are challenged with delivering widespread connectivity, especially in rural and underserved communities. School IT leaders have scrambled to make bandwidth available to support online classrooms and address issues of equity.

“The challenge with COVID-19 is that we have designed networks for the borders of the physical school building, and that is what the E-rate funding supports,” says Amy McLaughlin, project director for the Consortium for School Networking’s cybersecurity and Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiatives. “But there are creative approaches that districts are taking to extend their networks outside the borders of their schools.”

By deploying hotspots and creating Wi-Fi availability in public spaces, some districts have made strong headway in closing the connectivity gap.

Key Partnerships Are Helping Districts Provide Bandwidth

In Highline Public Schools near Seattle, some 6,000 kids started the year with inadequate connectivity at home. CTO Mark Finstrom worked with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program to deploy hotspots to those who need them. He has also helped make Wi-Fi available throughout the community.

“I am using all the resources I have available, working with foundations, working with local businesses who will allow students to be near their buildings for internet access,” Finstrom says. “We have students sitting in our covered play areas, we have parents sitting in their cars near our schools so they can connect.”

DISCOVER: With e-learning, proactive networks investments pay off.

Meanwhile, at Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit 5, a Pennsylvania service agency supporting local school districts, Director of Innovative Technology Solutions Vince Humes is collaborating with multiple cellular carriers to deploy hotspots and ensure students have all the bandwidth needed to learn effectively. This involves negotiating with the carrier over data caps, which can limit a hotspot’s utility.

“When the public schools run into problems, we facilitate those conversations,” Humes says. “We do the surveys and crunch the numbers to see how many hotspots they have and how much they are paying. Hopefully, that will help us to get some budget to offset these unexpected expenses.”

Budgeting is a primary concern for the 13 school districts IU supports. “They are using 2,688 hotspots, and they need another 1,350 of them. By the time they pay the device costs and the monthly fees, it would cost roughly $1.5 million to have everything they need,” he says.

Mark Finstrom, CTO, Highline Public Schools
We have students sitting in our covered play areas, we have parents sitting in their cars near our schools so they can connect.”

Mark Finstrom CTO, Highline Public Schools

How Districts Can Optimize Their Networks

Network optimization tools and bandwidth assessments can help districts make the most of their limited resources.

Those relying on hotspots can work with carriers to enhance network optimization. “The service providers are constantly optimizing their networks to make them as efficient as possible,” says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit helping bring high-speed broadband to all U.S. schools.

“School districts can engage with that,” Marwell says. “If they have handed out 1,000 hotspots and some of those students don’t get particularly good reception, the school districts can get in touch with the service providers and point out cases where students are having trouble connecting.”

Districts can also optimize their networks by diversifying their service providers. “Then, if your students are getting slow speeds on one carrier, you can switch them to a different provider’s network,” he says.

Marwell adds that carriers can also provide bandwidth assessments to help districts maximize performance. That data should be readily available to the districts, he says.

“It will tell them which students are or are not using their mobile hotspots, and that can be an indicator of who is or isn’t participating in remote learning,” he says. “For schools that don’t have unlimited deals with service providers — where there is a monthly data cap — this will help them understand how much bandwidth they are using and whether they can optimize how much they are paying for that bandwidth.”

RELATED: Students can continue remote learning, even without the internet.

What Districts Should Know About Bandwidth and E-Rate

Districts can also work with parents to ensure ample bandwidth from third-party providers.

“You can have bandwidth-based recommendations and turn them into human-based language so parents can talk to their providers,” McLaughlin says. “Then, they can say: ‘I am being told I need this. How do I get it?’”

CoSN is supporting such efforts. The organization has a bandwidth calculator that allows districts to make rough calculations based on how many people are using a given hotspot, who the carrier is and what the data plan covers.

“It gives you an idea of what the bandwidth constraints are going to be for a given family,” McLaughlin explains. “If you know those constraints, you can leverage resources against any equity challenge; providing more hotspots, for example, to families that may need it.”

Meanwhile, education advocates are pushing the FCC to allow for greater flexibility in the E-rate program, which currently only supports information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in schools. A change in regulations could enable schools to devote some of that funding to connecting kids at home, says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning.

MORE ON EDTECH: What do school leaders need to know about funding in tough budget times?

“The E-rate program today falls short,” Harrington says. “The program supports the on-campus piece, but the need isn’t just on the campus. For so many, that classroom is now at home or elsewhere, and the program currently prohibits providing discounts or financial aid for those off-campus contexts. We are calling for that to change.”

He and other advocates are looking beyond the present urgent need for connectivity. Forward-thinking IT leaders say ongoing bandwidth assessments and network optimization efforts will be needed as schools seek to maximize their network investments moving forward.

“Even when we go back to school, we will have these issues going on,” Humes says. “We have a network with 80 different sites across multiple counties, and we don’t know who will or won’t be in those facilities. We will need the tools to help us find a balance between the networking things that we can and can’t control.”

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