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Shirley Bloomfield: Promoting Home Connectivity for Rural Students Through Broadband

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

The first day of school has always come with a mix of joy and anxiety as students transition from summer fun to books and bells. But the start to this new school year certainly did not look like the last—even for those headed back into the classroom.

By the end of the 2019-20 school year, about 55 million American students and teachers had been affected by COVID-19 related school closures. Many continue to be affected, with schools embracing a blend of staggered schedules and remote learning.

Others may be starting in-person, but these schools need to plan for the contingency of remote learning for students that may be forced to stay at home due to the onset of illness or in the event of a virus resurgence throughout a community. As school districts prepare for remote learning, a significant barrier remains in that too many students do not have reliable internet connectivity at home.

In many cases, however, the problem is not the availability of service; rather, customers may not be buying service that is available because they cannot afford it or for other reasons. In all cases, the ability of rural school systems and families to bridge digital gaps for this future generation is hindered.

To help make sure every student who has a connection at home can make good use of it this year, NTCA has joined the K-12 Bridge to Broadband program, an initiative from the national non-profit Digital Bridge K-12, to bring together rural broadband providers and school districts across the country.

This model has already proven successful in North Dakota where rural providers leveraged this initiative to connect with schools who had students in need, and we are hopeful it can become a roadmap for school and provider interaction across the country.

We believe this initiative could be particularly important in ensuring that the robust networks our members have worked so hard to deploy can be part of the solution for remote learning, rather than school districts and students resorting to temporary or less capable platforms or other alternatives.

By committing to a set of principles, NTCA member broadband providers who join the partnership program can express their interest in working with local school systems, who will take on bulk procurement of home internet access for those students living in homes that do not already purchase such services. NTCA is promoting the partnership program to our members, and Digital Bridge K-12 is sharing contact information for providers through a lookup tool on its website for school systems.

Like so many things, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to ensuring every student is connected. But we believe solutions start by having schools and broadband providers simply talk with each other at a local level. As “hometown providers” who live and raise families in the areas they serve, our members have a unique opportunity to lead rural communities in solving this issue by offering solutions to schools in their own backyards.

Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America. With more than 30 years of experience representing the country’s smallest independent telecom operators, she seeks to sustain the vitality of rural and remote communities and the benefits broadband networks bring to the national economy. She is also a board member of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and GlobalWin, an organization of women leaders in the high-tech industry. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Education

Subsidies for Hotspot Devices a ‘Great Idea,’ FCC Chairwoman Says

The commission has been exploring the broadening of the E-Rate program, a high-cost program under the Universal Service Fund.

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Photo of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel (right) at the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 — Federal Communications Commissioner Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Wednesday at the Conference of Mayors that an agency program subsidizing mobile hotspot devices is a “great idea” and that there may be some activity on that front in the future.

The chairwoman was fielding a comment from a mayor of a Texas city, who said that his jurisdiction has a program that lends out connectivity hubs – allowing others to connect to the device – in parts of the town for residents seeking internet. He asked whether that’s something that the FCC could fund.

“That’s a great idea,” said Rosenworcel to a packed breakout room including mayors from cities across the country.

Rosenworcel noted that the commission has been exploring the broadening of the E-Rate program, a high-cost program under the Universal Service Fund that subsidizes library and school broadband connectivity.

She said the commission may be able to expand the program to encompass funding for hotspot devices.

“Stay tuned,” she added, “because I think you’re onto something.”

Groups have, in the past, urged the E-Rate program to go beyond the schools and libraries and to households. An existing program, called the Emergency Connectivity Fund, helps students get connectivity outside of school.

Affordable Connectivity Program needs mayoral outreach

The chairwoman also touched on the need for mayors to help get the word out on the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14.2 billion initiative that provides a broadband subsidy of up-to $30 per month to low-income families and up-to $75 for households on tribal lands.

The FCC said roughly 16 million Americans are on the program, but it suspects there are many more households that are eligible. That’s why it has set up four outreach programs to get the word out.

When asked about the longevity of the ACP, the chairwoman said there is still a lot of money leftover – some estimate over $10 billion – indicating a need to get the word out to fill the gaps.

But she noted that if it comes to it, the agency may need to go back to Congress and ask for its long-term survival because it’s “too important to stop.”

Open RAN technologies encouraged for BEAD funding

The small conference also included a cybersecurity official from the White House, who provided an overview of strategies for cities to protect themselves from attacks.

Anne Neuberger, a White House advisor for cybersecurity, said one recommendation for cities applying for federal broadband funding – specifically from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program – is to use that money toward open radio access network technologies.

Open RAN is a mobile wireless protocol that allows for the interoperability of devices, allowing telecommunications companies to forgo relying on proprietary technologies from companies deemed a threat to national security, such as Huawei and ZTE.

The NTIA is currently fielding comments on how it should craft a $1.5 billion program spawned by the Chips and Science Act that seeks to explore alternatives to wireless equipment.

Last month, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada signed onto a commitment to “ensuring the security and resilience of our telecommunications networks, including by fostering a diverse supply chain and influencing the development of future telecommunications technologies such as 6G.

“Collectively, we recognize that open and interoperable architectures are one way of creating a more open, diverse and innovative market,” a collective statement said.

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Education

Workforce Training Gap Next Great Challenge for Broadband, Conference Hears

There is a widespread concern that there is a lack of skills training provided for broadband deployment and maintenance.

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Photo of Nirali Patel, USTelecom Senior VP of Policy and Advocacy, photo from dataIQ

WASHINGTON, December 15, 2022 – As the broadband labor market is expected to face challenges, more skills training must be deployed to find and train applicants, according to an advisor.

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration prepares to disburse billions in funding from its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment infrastructure program, questions have been raised about whether the nation has the workforce for the added infrastructure.

Jordon Sims, founder of Imperium Global Advisors,  said at the 40th Annual Institute on Telecommunications Policy and Regulation on Thursday that he expects the workforce to be the next great challenge because of the deficiency in the labor force and lack of skills training provided. More skills training programs would efficiently prepare applicants to enter the workforce, as well as expand the number of applicants eligible through the provided skills training.

He recommended the government take an active role to foster and retain a strong broadband workforce. To achieve this goal, Sims said skills training programs should obtain further funding to expand the skills they teach and the number of programs offered. New and potential broadband employees should have skills training and be able to work in broadband without much prior experience.

The Wireless Infrastructure Association and the Fiber Broadband Association have identified these issues and have been working on partnerships to address the labor concern.

On a Broadband Breakfast panel on Wednesday, experts discussed the need for states to use BEAD funding to build a skilled and diverse workforce.  An expected labor shortage is expected to occur and expanding skills training will help develop skills for potential applicants.

On a separate panel from the event, Nirali Patel, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at industry association USTelecom, said underrepresented students must also be prepared for jobs in technology through skills training provided through federal programs such as BEAD.

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Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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