Closing the Digital Divide
In spring 2020, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the shift to hybrid and remote learning for most schools turned what was once a “homework gap” into a “learning opportunity gap” as devices and internet access became necessary in order to keep students connected and learning.
Over the past 10 years, the country has made huge strides to connect 99 percent of our school buildings to broadband.1 This progress is the result of coordinated federal, state, and local efforts – from targeted federal funding through the modernized E-Rate program, to state E-Rate matching funds, to creative partnerships in local communities and advocacy from organizations. A similar effort is needed to ensure home internet access for students to enable anytime, anywhere learning.
Broadband refers to high-speed internet access that is faster than dial-up and delivered through several types of technologies including fiber, wireless, cable, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and satellite. A broadband connection has two speeds: download and upload. Download speed is the speed of getting information from the web to your computer, and upload speed is the reverse. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets the minimum bandwidth for a broadband connection to be 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
A June 2020 report from Common Sense Media found that up to 16 million K-12 public school students live in households either without an internet connection or without a device adequate for remote learning at home. Approximately 9 million of these students live in households with neither an adequate connection nor an adequate device for remote learning. The report also found that approximately 400,000 teachers lacked adequate connectivity or devices to support remote teaching from home.2
Research shows that lack of high-speed broadband is disproportionately common in low-income, rural, tribal, and other under-resourced communities.3 A 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences shows that geography directly impacts home internet access. Students in “remote rural” areas had more limited home internet access than students in suburbs, cities, or towns due to a lack of available broadband infrastructure. The study also shows additional gaps among students of different poverty levels and racial/ethnic groups. For example, Black (41 percent) and Hispanic students (26 percent) in remote rural areas were more likely than White (13 percent) or Asian students (11 percent) to have either no internet access or only dial-up access at home.4
Disparate access to the internet and devices required for learning results in significant consequences for students. According to a study conducted by the Quello Center at Michigan State University, “After controlling for socioeconomic factors, quality of home internet access has an impact on a range of student performance outcomes.” The study found that “students who do not have access to the internet from home, or who are dependent on a cell phone alone for access, perform lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average.”5
Before the pandemic, schools, districts, and states were taking a variety of approaches to address the homework gap—from purchasing and lending mobile hotspots, to parking buses equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots near under-connected neighborhoods, to allowing students to use the school’s internet before or after school. In many cases, however, unserved or underserved students have had to piece together internet access via smartphones with limited cellular data plans or travel to a library or fast-food restaurant to use free Wi-Fi. Even these basic solutions have become more difficult to navigate as schools, libraries, and businesses have closed or limited access to the public during the pandemic. As the pandemic has made clear, many of the solutions we have been employing are not enough to equitably meet students’ needs.
District and state leaders have used emergency stimulus funding6 along with state and local funds to implement immediate connectivity solutions (e.g., mobile hotspots, temporarily paying for home internet subscriptions) to ensure continuity of learning for students. For some students, these immediate solutions have proven sufficient for short-term, remote learning; however, for others, including those sharing a single hotspot with several siblings, the bandwidth offered by mobile hotspots has been too slow to engage in sustained remote learning.7 Further, mobile hotspots are unusable for students in rural and urban communities with spotty cellular service because there is nothing for the hotspot to connect to.8 In addition, most of these solutions will be cost-prohibitive after emergency stimulus programs end and states and districts must find ways to cover these new, recurring expenses in already limited budgets. Some states and districts are also planning for longer-term sustainable solutions (e.g., off-campus wireless networks). In talking with state and district leaders that are tirelessly working to deploy creative solutions to connect students at home, one thing is clear: solving this challenge is bigger than the education community alone. It requires creative community partnerships to bring the necessary resources, expertise, and solutions to the table.
The purpose of this brief is to present strategies for deploying off-campus wireless networks as a sustainable solution to provide home connectivity to all students and educators. This brief shows how school districts have taken diverse approaches to build off-campus wireless networks. Off-campus wireless networks offer a possible long-term approach to solving the home connectivity gap. They may not be a viable solution in all districts; however, we hope the examples highlighted in this brief contribute to the discussion of sustainable, long-term solutions for providing equitable access to high-quality education. This is a community effort and will require a team.
- Education Superhighway (2019). 2019 State of States: The Classroom Connectivity Gap is Closed. Retrieved from https://3x4u3i1w2onf4vhj418itzm1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019-State-of-the-States-Full-Report-EducationSuperHighway.pdf. The 2019 State of the States report notes that 99% of schools are connected at speeds of 100 kbps per student, the FCC minimum recommended bandwidth to enable digital learning in the classroom. Starting in 2018, the FCC raised this standard to1 Mbps per student. In 2020, Connect K-12 reported that 47% of school districts are meeting the 1 Mbps per student goal: https://connectk12.org/static/media/Connect_K12_2020_Executive_Summary_Full_Report.d84a960a.pdf
- Chandra, S., Chang, A., Day, L., Fazlullah, A., Liu, J., McBride, L., Mudalige, T., Weiss, D., (2020). Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Consulting Group.
- U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. (2017, September). America’s digital divide. Retrieved from https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/ff7b3d0b-bc00-4498-9f9d-3e56ef95088f/the-digital-divide-.pdf.
- U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017098/index.asp
- Hampton, K. N., Fernandez, L., Robertson, C. T., & Bauer, J. M., Broadband and Student Performance Gaps, James H. and Mary B. Quello Center, Michigan State University (March 2020), available at https://quello.msu.edu/broadbandgap/.
- States and districts have received three rounds of emergency stimulus funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA), and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP). Information about these programs is available on the Department’s website: https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/
- Johnson, S. and Burke, M. (2020). More California students are online, but digital divide runs deep with distance learning. EdSource. Retrieved from https://edsource.org/2020/more-california-students-are-online-but-digital-divide-runs-deep-with-distance-learning/630456.
- Salman, J. (2020). Hotspots no silver bullet for rural remote learning. Hechinger Report. Retrieved from https://hechingerreport.org/hotspots-no-silver-bullet-for-rural-remote-learning/.