Putting Broadband Across the Board: A Good First Step is to Ensure all K-12 Students have Internet Access @Home

“We should be spending $20 billion to put broadband across the board.”

— President-Elect Joe Biden

In an interview with New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman published on December 2, 2020, President-Elect Joe Biden confirmed his support for Federal broadband funding and proposed that $20B should be spent. For those who support President Biden’s proposal, the next question is how best to implement a program to help expand broadband access and adoption, especially in rural areas of the country.

Common Sense Media’s “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide” report and NCTA & EducationSuperHighway’s “K-12 Bridge to Broadband” initiative both point to the potential efficacy of expanding broadband access through efforts to ensure that all K-12 Students have internet access at home. In this post, I examine recommendations put-forth in the “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide” report and the impactful public-private partnerships established by the K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative.

Closing the K-12 Digital Divide

Earlier this year, the non-profit organization Common Sense Media partnered with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to release an important report entitled “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning.” Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the report assesses the scape, scale and impact of the so-called “homework gap,” provides a series of recommendations to address the K-12 digital divide and offers an estimated price tag for implementing the report’s recommendations.

The report is notable for its primary author, Common Sense Media, well-known as an organization providing trustworthy, independent information for children and parents about “how to thrive in the 21st century.” The report is also notable for its direct and well-supported call for action. In the concluding pages of the report, the authors make a compelling case for immediate and unprecedented action to the ensure equitable learning opportunities during the pandemic. The authors write:

This moment is an opportunity to provide equitable access to connectivity and technology not just for students, but also for their families…This is an opportunity to rethink how to support students and families to weather the [COVID-19] crisis, and level the playing field between those with full access and those without. Closing the digital divide will require public and private sectors to come together with a sense of urgency for immediate action to ensure equitable learning opportunities during the pandemic, and a sustained commitment to secure our nation’s educational future by ensuring that digital technology will benefit all students and their families.

As the report’s authors correctly point-out, adequate internet connectivity at home essential especially given social distancing measures under COVID-19. Less than ideal alternatives to at-home connectivity and devices, including reliance on computers and internet access at libraries or Wi-Fi at cafes are, in many communities, are no longer viable half-measures.

Three Key Take-Aways from the Common Sense Media Report:

1. The Costs of Inaction

Learning loss as result of a lack of technology access is a serious challenge facing communities across the county. This point goes to the most immediate impact of allowing the status quo to persist. The authors cite May 2020 research issued by Kuhfield, Soland, et al on the potential impact of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement and conclude “by the start of the next school year, the average student may have lost up to a third of their expected progress from the prior year in reading and half of their expected progress in math due to recent school closures from COVID-19.”

2. The Advantages of Taking Action

Investing in technology and connectivity designed to address learning disruptions will at the same time help extend an increasingly ubiquitous smart home platform that community leaders can/should use to deliver smart community initiatives including aging at home, chronic disease management and, of course, education. This point goes to the advantages of a community where all residents have access to a smart home. The authors write: “addressing COVID-19 learning disruptions with internet and learning devices will serve an urgent need to enable effective distance learning and mitigate learning loss; it will also position communities that have long struggled with the digital divide with equitable technology resources to better succeed in the future.”

3. The Best Pathways to Success

Existing networks providing connectivity for schools can/should be the foundation for the new connectivity. According to Education Superhighway’s 2019 State of the States report, 99% of public schools have high-speed broadband access. Building on this data, the authors make the point that “quality technical support is required as users activate, build a knowledge base for, and troubleshoot issues with their connectivity, devices, and tools.” Without technical support, the report concludes on page 19, “users may be unable to activate or take full advantage of the resources provided to them.”

Creating a K-12 Bridge to Broadband

These three key takeaways from the Common Sense Media report dovetail with the core principals of initiative released this year that also focused on the need for equitable access to the internet at home. The K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative, announced by NCTA — the Internet and Television Association and EducationSuperHighway (ESH) in September 2020, establishes a framework to guide partnerships between Internet Service Providers, school districts, communities and other key stakeholders.

The K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative is notable for the organizations who authored the core principles and accompanying report. NCTA’s member companies offer broadband services to 80% of all U.S. homes, 110 million housing units. ESH has been working since 2012 to upgrade internet access in every public-school classroom in America. Together, the two organizations, are well-placed to quantify digital divide challenges and identify viable and sustainable solutions to address challenges. Moreover, since the Bridge to Broadband initiative was announced dozens of additional ISPs have signed-on. As a result, the initiative should cover just about every eligible family in the country.

An encouraging synergy between both the “Closing the Digital Divide” report and the “Bridge to Broadband” framework is that both call-out the importance and efficacy of public private partnerships. Effective public private partnerships help ensure that families are connected and students receive the support they need.

The core principles established in the K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative are drawn from on the real-life experience of school districts in communities including Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Des Moines. The principles point to the fact that successfully addressing the K-12 digital divide is not achieved by providing connectivity alone but is instead achieved by providing the support that enables sustained educational progress. This point is, of course, is also emphasized in the key take-away #3 drawn from the Common Sense Report. The best and most sustainable solutions will provide students and their families with connectivity and support.

As federal and state policymakers evaluate the most effective approaches to “put broadband across the board,” they are wise to consider whether an effort to replicate and expand proven efforts closing the K-12 Digital Divide might be the right first step.

About this Medium Site

On this Medium site, I explore an array of topics related to the transformative power of smart and connected communities. A central question for this observer of the so-called smart city movement: how will municipalities develop, deploy and support smart and connected community projects at scale?

I welcome feedback and comments from readers.

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Bill Maguire

A recovering policy wonk, Bill is passionate about the transformative power of advanced networks, open data, machine learning & the Internet of Things (IoT).