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Surveying Broadband Issues Faced by Students Under COVID-19, CoSN Offers Its Recommendations

The speed of the broadband service used was only one component of the issues students faced.

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Photo of Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium of School Networking, from Millennium Sustainable Education

May 8, 2021—The Consortium for School Networking recently published the “Student Home Connectivity Study,” which offered recommendations regarding distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CoSN collected data from thirteen school distracts representing rural, suburban, and urban communities, and approximately 750,000 K-12 students. The authors of the study divided their findings into four topics.

Broadband video connections as part of distance learning

The first such topic pertained to the ability of students to utilize video components of distance learning. Researchers noted that both asynchronous and synchronous videos were a mainstay in distance learning despite the high upload and download speed requirements necessary to sustain such a service.

According to the study, more than 85 percent of network traffic related to remote learning is just for video.

The study also noted that the use of video-intensive content is expected to continue to increase, and with it, the demand for faster, more reliable, broadband.

It can be demanding enough to have a single student both downloading and uploading video content at once, but researchers found that 70 percent of students live in households with at least one other student. Without sufficient download and upload speeds, students were unable to engage in distance learning uninterrupted.

Connectivity habits

The second topic reflected student behavior and habits when using broadband—namely, that students are highly mobile and rely on Wi-Fi to access distance learning services. Of the students surveyed, 92 percent used Wi-Fi rather than a wired connection. Now that students are no longer required to attend school in person, researchers observed that many would engage in class from public spaces, a classmate’s home, or even from a different city or state.

The study also noted that students are typically not using Wi-Fi on a single device, and that in addition to a laptop or desktop computer, many also had smartphones and tablets that competed for bandwidth.

Compounding the issue is that many of the students surveyed possessed services that could provide sufficient broadband speeds, but they were using outdated hardware that weakened their Wi-Fi connections. Additional factors such as router location and house construction also presented obstacles to Wi-Fi use.

Addressing underserved communities

The third category were issues related to community distance learning in underserved communities, particularly in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission and legislators have recognized that, for some, the rural broadband experience can be similar to the broadband experience in the inner city.

The study indicated that even students living in areas about the average socioeconomic status did not automatically have access to sufficient broadband for distance learning.

Distance learning experience by quality of devices

The final topic juxtaposed students’ distance learning experience to the quality of the devices they had access to. Unsurprisingly, students with older devices or devices with limited memory or processing power often had a worse experience than students with newer and/or more powerful devices.

Processing speed, memory, CPU utilization, application limits, the quality of Wi-Fi antennae, and Wi-Fi access frequencies were all metrics that were considered when evaluating devices. The worse those items were, the worse the experience generally was for the students surveyed.

Recommended solutions

The researchers made several recommendations to address these topics. Some of the recommendations were about taking advantage of existing programs, like the Emergency Connectivity Fund, and leveraging state and federal funds to provide better services for students. Some of the services exampled were Wi-Fi hotspots on buses, at stadiums, and other public areas that students could access to do their classwork.

Other solutions involved working with ISPs to ensure that community needs are addressed in an affordable manner. One such example was ISPs providing free satellite internet to households unable to afford a broadband subscription. Researchers also suggested that local school districts establish CBRS and LTE broadband services to affordably transmit data packages to students.

The study also provided a list of criteria that school districts should consider if they decide to purchase and loan devices to students. They included obvious things such as Wi-Fi capability, but also included items that can be easily overlooked, such as an integrated webcam/microphone and a headphone port.

Even as the pandemic appears to be drawing to a close, distance learning will likely continue to play a significant role in how students learn for the foreseeable future.

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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