The market failed rural kids: poor rural broadband has created a "homework gap"

America's commitment to market-based broadband — fueled by telcom millions pumped into campaigns against public broadband provision — has left rural Americans without access to the broadband they need to fully participate in twenty-first century life, with students among the hardest-hit victims of broadband deprivation.

The FCC can fix this. Across the country, "whitespace" spectrum (used to buffer licensed broadcasters from overlapping signals in adjacent territories) was historically allocated for rural educational TV broadcasts. When these didn't materialize, the spectrum was reclassified for wireless internet and the FCC started parceling it off to telcos, taking it away from the schools that could use it to connect their kids to the internet.

Many of these schools are on publicly operated, state-funded fiber loops, and could erect their own towers that students could use to connect to the internet over high-speed fixed wireless links, but only if the FCC gives the educational sector access to that educationally earmarked spectrum.

A recent FCC proceeding was flooded both by comments from educator technologists describing the educational costs of the homework gap and promising to remediate this gap by rolling out fixed wireless; and comments from telcoms lobbyists, representing the companies that have so significantly failed rural America, promising that if they get the school spectrum allocated to them, they'll do better this time.

With Trump's FCC in the hands of dingo babysitters like Ajit Pai, who want to end all public provision of network service and hand everything over to big telco, things look grim for rural American kids.

In the meantime, some teachers at Panguitch High School are moving more of their classroom work online. "Given the expectations we now have for student access, it's difficult for those students who don't have good internet at home," said the school's principal, Russell Torgersen. He's seen the students sitting in the school parking lot to tap the Wi-Fi on weekends, and he's had many conversations with teachers about how to work around students' spotty home connections.

For now, it's a waiting game, as the FCC plods toward a decision on the fate of the EBS spectrum. Given the uncertainty, Eyre and his allies are looking at alternative paths to spectrum licenses, such as the lengthy and complex FCC waiver process successfully used to create a rural educational broadband network in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Even if the FCC ultimately decides to give new EBS spectrum licenses to rural school districts like Garfield County, it's hard to say how much of the homework gap could then be eliminated. Current estimates of rural broadband don't take into account the boundaries of EBS whitespace, nor the fact that a home broadband connection can be inadequate for a school network's needs, according to digital-inclusion advocates such as Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for school technology leaders.

Rural Kids Face an Internet 'Homework Gap.' The FCC Could Help [Chris Berdik/Wired]