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Datacasting Helping Bridge Education Gap Where Broadband Is Limited

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Screenshot from the webinar

February 23, 2021—During the COVID-19 pandemic, television broadcasting stations have implemented datacasting technology to assist in the distance learning that many American children now face, though issues persist.

Datacasting refers to the practice of using radiofrequency spectrum currently occupied by broadcast television, instead of using typical broadband connections over fiber or other wireless transmissions, to replicate internet features.

These services only allow for downloading homework, tests, and learning material that their instructors send to them, but they may be unable to submit homework or tests via the same process.

Mark Newman, executive director of Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations, was a panelist at America’s Public Television Stations 2021 Public Media Summit Monday. He acknowledged that though datacasting is not a new technology, it has played a pivotal role in bridging the digital divide during the pandemic.

“Our motivation was simple: to do our part to make sure kids didn’t fall behind in school,” Newman said.

He outlined how, at the Indiana Department of Education’s request, IPBS was able to deploy a rapid response program designed to allow TV stations to deploy scheduled content that linked students to learning resources published by PBS Learning Media. This was an attempt to replicate the classroom learning experience, providing students lesson plans with goals and objectives.

Newman explained that data casting techniques would be able to be extended beyond the pandemic and assist families without or with limited broadband access. He said this vision is what contributed to IPBS being awarded $6.7 million in CARES Act funding. Newman added that datacasting could be an affordable component to closing the digital divide, as it only costs a fraction of what broadband services cost.

Datacasting for download, limited broadband for upload

Madeleine Noland is also a proponent of data casting. Noland is the president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, and though she recognizes the promise in datacasting, she also pointed out that it falls short of broadband in some crucial areas.

Noland noted that at its best, datacasting is paired with limited broadband capabilities. In this scenario, though a family might not have high speed internet access, they would ideally have at least a limited ability to upload a student’s homework.

With no access to broadband at home, students would still be able to receive their classwork, but would likely be required to travel to a secondary location with access to broadband to upload their assignments.

Noland unpacked what she described as a likely situation where multiple students in the same household can download large quantities of data via their set-top-box or other hardware, and then upload their assignments at a library with broadband access.

Even though this is less ideal than the convenience of high-speed internet from within the home, this cost-effective method of schooling children is far better than simply losing a year of school.

“My hope is that the leadership that [Mark Newman] is showing is strong—contagious,” Noland said. “I hope that we will find lots of others who are getting on the bandwagon and coming up with their own new ways to use the system and bring value to their communities.”

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Broadband Breakfast, Washington Jewish Week, and The Center Square, among other publications. He primarily covers Big Tech and spectrum policy.

Education

Coalition Says FCC E-rate Portal Proposal Could Create More Problems

Industry officials say the commission’s approach to E-rate competition would burden applicants.

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John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2021 – The executive director of a broadband coalition for anchor institutions said the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to force providers to bid for school and library services through a new portal will burden those applicants.

The agency proposed Thursday to force service providers to submit applications through a bidding portal overseen by the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate program that provides broadband subsidies to schools and libraries. The current approach is that libraries and schools announce they are seeking services and service providers would apply directly to those institutions.

By giving USAC the ability to see service provider applications before they go to the institutions, the agency said this would eliminate at least some forms of abuse or fraud, including participants who may misrepresent their certification or circumvent competitive-bidding rules.

But John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said that while he applauds the effort to listen to consumer needs, the portal’s one-size-fits-all approach would ultimately burden E-rate applicants and service providers.

He also claimed that there is not enough evidence to show that a new portal is needed and that it “would add a lot more federal bureaucracy on a program that is running pretty well right now.

“You would have federal employees at USAC trying to make determinations about what’s…in the best interests of the schools or libraries,” said Windhausen, “And we don’t think they’re really qualified to do that.”

Windhausen also sees potential conflict between the new bidding portal and some state laws already governing E-rate bidding. In a scenario in which state law and FCC policy conflict, it is not clear which policy would take precedence.

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Education

FCC Commits Another $603 Million in Emergency Connectivity Fund Money

The agency has now committed $3.8 billion from the $7.17-billion program.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission’s latest round of Emergency Connectivity Fund money will disburse $603 million to connect over 1.4 million students in all 50 states, the agency said Monday.

The FCC said it has now committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17-billion program, which provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, WiFi hotspots, modems, routers and connectivity to help students stay connected off school premises. The money comes as a new Covid-19 variant sweeps the nation again, putting face-to-face interactions at risk once again.

The agency also said Monday that it has allocated an additional $367 million in its first commitment and nearly $236 million in the second commitment.

The agency in October said that previous rounds had committed $2.63 billion from the fund since its launch in June.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said in a Monday release.

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Education

Texas High School Students Enter the Fight for Better Connectivity

Students in a Houston-area school district hosted a panel on connecting schools and libraries as part of a national event on bridging the digital divide.

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John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – Generation Z students are making their mark at a Houston-area school district by adding broadband access to the list of issues they are actively working on.

The high school students in the Fort Bend Independent School District organized a panel conversation on internet access in education as part of Connected Nation’s national event titled “20 Years of Connecting the Nation,” and were able to host some high-profile guests in the world of telecommunications.

The November 17 panel included John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, Chris Martinez, division director of information technology for the Harris County Public Library, Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, and Meredith Watassek, director of career and technical education for Fort Bend ISD.

Nine percent of residents in Harris County, where Houston is located, reports that they do not have a connected device at home and 18 percent say they do not have access to an internet connection. These gaps in access are the focus of the panelists’ digital equity efforts.

With Windhausen and Martinez present on the panel, a key point of discussion was the importance of helping libraries to act as anchor institutions – institutions which help enable universal broadband access.

Watassek pointed out that she has been helping oversee distance learning in Fort Bend ISD for six years, starting such a program to enable teachers to teach students in several of the district’s buildings without having to drive to each one, and has seen that with time and learned experience it is possible to work through distance learning logistical issues that school districts around the nation are currently facing.

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