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The pandemic has revealed underlying gaps in our national broadband infrastructure that impact educational opportunities and outcomes for students. As students return to school buildings and we move from pandemic response to recovery, it is important to remain focused on addressing the digital divide for students. While we hope that we never experience another disruption on this scale, disruptions are inevitable and continuity of learning will be threatened by natural disasters, snow days, and when individual students face long-term illnesses or other absences. It is essential to take note of the lessons learned, build on the creative solutions employed, invest in the partnerships built, and plan for long-term, sustainable solutions in order to strengthen our resilience in the face of future disruptions.

Key Takeaways

  • Design for all student experiences. Consider the range of student home environments that your network will need to operate within and select technology solutions and design policies that are flexible enough to accommodate a range of internet access, affordability, and adoption challenges. For example, households with multiple siblings may need more bandwidth; students that split time between different homes may need access at both locations; unhoused or highly mobile students will need solutions that can travel with them and still provide reliable access; and English learners and their families may need tech support in their home language.
  • Planning. Design and build with the future in mind. Plan your network to serve the number of students you have now and future student population growth. Start small with pilot projects to demonstrate viability and build support, but consider your long-term needs to avoid higher costs down the road. Bandwidth needs will grow as technologies change, so ensure your plan is scalable.
  • Partnerships. Develop partnerships with organizations in your community. Collaborating with local government, civic organizations, libraries, and other groups will open doors to resources and expertise that will support planning and execution of the network. Consider starting a local broadband team to build your plan.
  • Coalitions. Consider forming coalitions with nearby districts to leverage economies of scale and lessons learned. Shared problems can lead to creative and cost-effective shared solutions.
  • Consider federal and state grant opportunities. The districts profiled in this brief used Race to the Top funding, State competitive grants, CARES Act funding, and the USDA Community Facilities Direct Loan & Grant Program to fund components of their networks. Consider collaborating with community partners who may have access to additional grant funding not available to schools.
  • Talk with telecommunications companies. Talk with every telecommunications company that serves your district, including start-up ISPs and larger cellular companies. Attempt to negotiate deals for student purchases. Discuss how you can work together to share ownership and maintenance of network equipment, including towers. Consider placing towers on all school facilities.
  • Learn from successful implementations. Virtually visit places that have successfully built what you are planning. Learn about their main roadblocks and how they developed solutions. Education technology leaders are eager to share their solutions with their peers. Utilize their knowledge.
  • Check the availability of the proposed wireless solutions in your area. If you consider leveraging 2.5 GHz, CBRS, white space, or 5 GHz spectrum, explore whether they are available in your area, and how much of that availability is saturated.
  • Track federal legislation and funding developments. Several professional organizations closely track federal broadband legislation and funding developments for their members. As federal agencies develop new grant programs or make changes to existing programs (e.g., E-Rate), there are often opportunities for the public to weigh in via the public commenting process. Consider weighing in on proposed updates that impact education stakeholders by providing supporting research, data, and examples.
  • Be realistic about the budget. Finally, look carefully at spending over time. Consider your current and future baseline budget as well as emergency stimulus funding that may be temporarily available. Understand which expenses are one-time expenses and which are ongoing expenses. Ensure that your plan is financially sustainable and can provide for future needs.