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Community Broadband Efforts Alive and Thriving in Ohio, Maryland and Utah

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PITTSBURGH, August 16, 2018 – Big telecommunications providers are not making it easy for communities to step up and offer robust broadband service, even in low-density areas that the private sector has declined to serve for years, according to experts speaking at a July 23 Next Century Cities conference here.

Among the local examples: Medina County Fiber Network

In Medina County, Ohio, a town about 30 miles south of Cleveland, David Corrado, CEO of Medina County Fiber Network, advocated for setting down a fiber network and keeping it open as a utility.

“You have to have that fiber as a utility in your municipality,” Corrado said. “And the other thing is, you have to make sure you open it up. You don’t have to fight the incumbents. You can be, if you have to be, a product.”

Corrado’s fiber network, established in 2013, is owned by Medina County Port Authority and runs 151 miles long with 144 strands of dark fiber.

The port authority calls the network an ‘e-corridor’ for high-bandwidth capacity

The port authority describes the network as a “e-corridor” that links participants such as businesses, libraries, and schools with carriers, and serves to keep the county competitive with increased data bandwidth services.

The only shareholders are the community members, and the network was funded through grants and bonds, providing a prime example of a successful community-led effort to build a fiber network.

According to Corrado, the Medina County Fiber Network is an “open fiber network, focused on commercial.” However, in order for an open fiber network to work, he said it has to be treated as a utility.

“Think of one big railroad track,” Corrado said. “We have fourteen carriers on the network and we are basically selling their products. They bring their trains onto our railroad track and think of each of those [train]cars as bringing internet, voice, data services.”

Garrett County’s wireless broadband network

Cheryl DeBarry, representing Garrett County, Maryland, described efforts to set up broadband access in areas that the private sector has avoided due to a lack of business case for the low-density areas.

According to DeBarry, she avoids much of the hostility and competition with incumbent service providers by targeting areas that the private sector avoids.

“They’re never gonna go there by themselves,” DeBarry said. “They aren’t mad at us for being in those areas at all,” she said, referring to areas that are uneconomic business case for fiber networks.”The bottom line is they don’t want the areas we’re working on.”

DeBarry added that finally some providers such as Comcast are entering Garrett County, and beginning to work through agreements on rights-of-way. “They are expanding with our help in some areas,” DeBarry said. “Other providers have said ‘yeah, no thanks.’”

Utah’s UTOPIA fiber network has moved from tensions to high reliability

However, Kim McKinley, representative of UTOPIA Fiber, described a different story– one of massive tensions and hostility between UTOPIA and incumbent providers.

Officially named the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, UTOPIA Fiber was founded in 2004 from 11 cities working together to create a fiber to the home network delivering connectivity to every home in the communities.

The network relies on fiber optic cables and uses an open-access model, where UTOPIA provides the infrastructure and allows local ISPS open access to use the infrastructure to provide their services. According to UTOPIA, the fiber optic cable network provides speeds up to 30 times faster than the copper wire models that some incumbent providers–at least partially–rely on.

McKinley described harassment from private sector companies such as Comcast. “They show up all the time because they are trying to shut us down,” McKinley said. “We’re delivering on the surface and getting our cities who started this project to keep backing it. They’re just nasty folks there in Utah. They don’t like us.”

While DeBarry claimed that the reason they were unbothered by incumbent providers was because they avoided targeted areas and focused on low density areas, McKinley argued that UTOPIA Fiber had done the same, and still faced heavy hostility for low-density areas such as a “300 home community.”

“We just combat them with delivery and doing what they do better than they can,” McKinley said.

(Photo of David Corrado of the Medina County Fiber Network from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group the Self-Insurance Institute of America. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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Education

FTC Approves Policy Statement on Guiding Review of Children’s Online Protection

The policy statement provides the guiding principles for which the FTC will review the collection and use of children’s data online.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission last week unanimously approved a policy statement guiding how it will enforce the collection and use of children’s online data gathered by education technology companies.

The policy statement outlines four provisions in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, including ones related to limiting the amount of data collected for children’s access to educational tools; restricting types of data collected and requiring reasons for why they are being collected; prohibiting ed tech companies from holding on to data for speculative purposes; and prohibiting the use of the data for targeted advertising purposes.

“Today’s statement underscores how the protections of the COPPA rule ensure children can do their schoolwork without having to surrender to commercial surveillance practices,” said FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan at an open meeting on Thursday.

Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter added Thursday that although COPPA provides the strongest data minimization rule in US law, it’s enforcement may not be as strong, saying that “this policy statement is timely and necessary.”

Slaughter, who was the acting FTC chairwoman before Khan was approved to lead the agency, said last year that the commission was taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling privacy and data collection practices of ed tech companies, which has seen a boom in interest since the start of the pandemic.

Thursday’s statement comes after lawmakers have clamored for big technology companies to do more to prevent the unnecessary collection of children’s data online. It also comes after President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address earlier this year that companies must be held accountable for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Lawmakers have already pushed legislation that would reform COPPA – originally published in 1998 to limit the amount of information that operators could collect from children without parental consent – to raise the age for online protections for children.

Thursday’s FTC statement also seeks to scrutinize unwarranted surveillance practices in education technology, such as geographic locating or data profiling. Khan added that though endless tracking and expansive use of data have become increasingly common practices, companies cannot extend these practices into schools.

Review is nothing new

“Today’s policy statement is nothing particularly new,” said Commissioner Noah Phillips, saying that the review started in July 2019.

Commissioner Christine Wilson, while supporting the statement, was also more withdrawn about its impact. “I am concerned that issuing policy statements gives the illusion of taking action, especially when these policy statements break no new ground.”

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