Home Access Solutions for Rural Schools
While COVID-19 forces schools to adapt to remote learning, school administrators in rural areas must find creative solutions due to connectivity gaps – sometimes called dead zones. In 2019, studies showed that a third of all rural households in America have little or no access to broadband. This lack of access can have a devastating economic impact and cripple students’ ability to keep up with online schoolwork.
Broadband infrastructure can be both expensive and technically challenging to deploy to these areas. However, we cannot allow rural residents to remain digitally invisible in the information economy.
Use this section of the toolkit to understand the challenges faced in rural areas, learn how a school district in Texas responded, and take action to connect your community.
While low-cost residential broadband is widely available in urban and suburban locations, the availability decreases as population density decreases. One report indicated that areas with a population density of 6.8 people per square mile (about the population density of Montana), wireline broadband only reaches 64% of households – a 19 point difference from urban areas.
One reason is that difficult terrain, such as mountains, deserts, or frozen ground, makes it challenging to build wired connections in the ground and has led to lower-than-average broadband penetration and use in rural America. It’s expensive to build in these areas, and if people are not there to purchase and use the service, it’s difficult for a service provider to see a return on the investment.
When broadband is available in rural areas, they have less choice about who provides it. A study by Brookings Institute found that rural census blocks were six times less likely to have a choice in service provider options compared to their urban counterparts. That decreases the buying power for individuals when it comes to signing up for a contract.
For some suburban and urban areas, wireline service can be replaced using the cellular network to connect a personal or mobile hotspot. Hotspots connect to cellular networks and are great solutions where service is strong. However, they are difficult to deploy widely in rural areas due to spotty cell signals. While the FCC and major carriers work to standardize mapping and equip rural America with additional cell coverage, hotspots, in most cases, will not close the home-access gap.
Addressing the challenges will require a multi-pronged approach, long-term planning, and (likely) innovative partnerships. In the meantime, school districts are finding creative solutions to connect their students.
CASE STUDY: LOCKHART, TEXAS
Despite being only 30 miles south of Austin, Texas, Lockhart residents face many of the same challenges as other rural areas in connecting to broadband. When the COVID-19 crisis forced the school district to shift to remote learning, they conducted a needs assessment and found that nearly half of their 6,000 students lacked high-speed Internet at home.
The administration knew that they had to act quickly to keep their students learning while at home. With the help of a local Internet provider, the district is in the process of installing seven booster towers near each school. These towers will beam the Internet into every home that needs it across the 300-square-mile district. It will be free to families and cost the district about $30 per household each year.
By July, they hope to connect 700 homes. Thanks to the public-private partnership and the dedication of the school district administration, students will reap the benefits of connected homes and online learning for years to come.
CASE STUDY: TONOPAH, ARIZONA
Saddle Mountain Unified School District #90 (SMUSD #90) is about 50 miles outside of Phoenix in Tonapah, a small town surrounded by mountains. Historically, few Internet providers have built infrastructure due to the surrounding mountainous terrain. To fill that gap, an entrepreneurial local service provider, Triad Wireless, was founded in 2002 to provide reliable, affordable wireless Internet access to residents.
Triad launched its Education Everywhere program shortly after inception to support families in need of low-cost Internet. The $10 per month program provides filtered Internet access to school district approved websites and applications for local students. With more families signing up daily, Triad needed to find additional buildings to install wireless radio towers that could deliver Internet to nearby homes to satisfy demand.
Since several school campuses in SMUSD #90 are located by students’ homes, the schools became the obvious answer. SMUSD #90 worked with Triad to approve the installation of additional Internet infrastructure at their schools at no cost to the provider. In return, Triad could serve more of the students in the school district. Together, Triad and SMUSD #90 worked to find a win-win solution for the business and the community – Triad expanded business, and SMUSD continues to help students to digital learning options while at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and into the future.
HOW TO APPROACH RURAL SOLUTIONS
Urban and suburban solutions often aren’t applicable to rural America. While it might make sense for urban school districts to cover the cost of wired Internet plans or provide personal hotspots, these solutions are not always viable in rural locations. We recommend school districts conduct rigorous testing in the locations they hope to deploy solutions to see whether they will effectively connect students.
In parallel, we encourage districts to consider researching local Internet provider options and starting discussions with them about possible options to support families in the near and long-term.
Lastly, we encourage school districts and parents to advocate at a federal and state level for expanded broadband access. Contact your representatives to share your story and encourage them to lobby for stimulus package funding for both short-term and long-term connectivity investments.
In the short-term, connecting students might include funding for super hotspots where parents and students can access the Internet from their cars. In the long term, solutions for rural schools need to focus on wired connections that will guarantee the speed and reliability students need for remote learning.
Ready to get started connecting your students? Read our how-to guide to discover seven essential steps to connecting your students at home.