#EdTech: WiFi Hotspots and the Digital Divide

As you may know, in late March, the FCC approved an expansion of  Lifeline discounts on phone service to include home internet access.  While this may help some, the truth is that in some areas, it still won’t be enough, whether because of lack of money and/or of infrastructure (such as the lack of broadband services period).  The digital divide is real:

Nationwide, families in neighborhoods with median household incomes below $34,800 — the lowest fifth of neighborhoods nationally — are five times more likely not to have access to broadband than households in areas with a median income above $80,700 — the top fifth, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

This blog has previously noted (see #EdTech and the Human 1.0) that not only is internet access critical, how it is accessed is also critical.  Mobile is great, but to really do research or create something, the power, capabilities, and input devices of a desktop are necessary.  That previous post also noted survey research that illustrates the large and growing gap between people who can access the internet in many ways, and those who do so primarily through their phones.

One solution to this dilemma is mobile wifi hotspots — portable 4G LTE WiFi devices using cellular networks to create a personal broadband Internet hotspot.  Public libraries are pioneers in using this technology.  The New York Public Library trialed lending wifi hotspots with the help of grants from the Knight News Challenge; this is from their grant proposal:

The program will provide essentially 24/7 quality access to those who are currently limited to accessing the Internet during a 40-minute, once-a-day time slot at one of NYPL’s 92 physical facilities, allowing them to continue to learn, work, explore, and create even after library doors have closed. In short, this effort will connect wired users who live in disconnected households, fostering an expanded community for reading, learning, and creativity.

NYPL’s initial program was for the 2014-2015 school year, as it worked in partnership with the NYC school system, and lent to parents with children enrolled in the library’s educational programs.  It was so successful that a second round was approved, with expanded eligibility for borrowing.

Depending on where you live and what kind of access your students have at home, such a program might be worth developing in your school district.  If funding is tight, in addition to grant money there are programs that can assist.  The biggest one is probably the E-Rate program from USAC that provides discounted telecommunications services for schools and libraries.  According to the U.S. Department of Education:

The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) is an independent, not-for-profit corporation created in 1997 to collect universal service contributions from telecommunications carriers and administer universal support mechanisms (programs) designed to help communities across the country secure access to affordable telecommunications services. USAC carries out its functions as the administrator of the federal universal service programs and Universal Service Fund (USF) under the oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). USAC administers universal service programs for high cost companies in rural areas, low-income consumers, rural health care providers, and schools and libraries.

Note: As a company, we have an interest in this.  Increased access at home means you could “flip” your class and have students use our programs at home as well as at school.  As Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the US Federal Communications Commission, has noted, the “homework gap” of students without broadband at home are “holding our education system back” because teachers won’t assign digital homework if they fear that their students lack safe and consistent Internet access.

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