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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 Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at 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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