A student in Spotsylvania, Virginia, gets a tour of a pop-up library that allows visitors access to the internet. Some schools are eligible for E-Rate funding, which helps pay for the cost of internet access at school. A recent policy change also allows those networks to serve students off campus after school hours. Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi / The Free Lance-Star

Thanks to a 2016 change in FCC policy, a small school district in central Virginia may have found a way to the bridge the “homework gap.”

The homework gap is the lack of digital access at home that can hurt students’ academic performance and interfere with their ability to complete assignments.

It’s hard to say in practical terms how bad the homework gap is. Some households have internet access but not at sufficient speeds for completing bandwidth-intensive homework. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report says only 55% of rural U.S. residents have access to download speeds faster than 25 megabits per second, the government’s current standard for adequate service.

Access is also closely associated with students’ races and household income. The Pew Research Center reports that 31.4% households with school-age children and whose annual income is less than $50,000 lack broadband. Only 8.4% of those earning more than $50,000 do not have broadband. About a quarter of white households lack broadband, compared with 38.6% of black households, 37.4% of Hispanic households, and 15.5% Asian American households.

Ironically, efforts to use technology to help students get ahead in education can create a bigger homework gap. High schools and elementary schools across the country are buying students laptops and tablets. Or private companies are underwriting them, as AT&T and Samsung are doing at Alvin Dunn Elementary School in San Marcus, California. Students that lack internet access, however, can’t take advantage of the technology and may fall further behind.

A recent Hispanic Heritage Foundation study found, for example, nearly 50% of students have been unable to complete homework assignment because they lack access to the internet. In addition, some students reported that lack of access led to lower grades on assignments.

A school district in a small Virginia county on the fringe of a metropolitan area in may have found a way to solve the homework gap for both rural and urban schools, with the help of community broadband infrastructure.

Appomattox County School District Jumps a Hurdle

School access to the internet is a public priority. The Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate program can reimburse for up to 90% of the cost of building and operating a school’s broadband network, if it qualifies for the program. The funding comes from a fee charged to telephone subscribers. The funds are supposed to help disadvantaged school districts improve their access to technology.

Once a school district agrees on what it needs, municipalities, public utilities, private internet service providers, utility cooperatives, or others can bid to get the contract to build a school’s network. The winning bidder then requests reimbursement via E-Rate. To make up for construction costs not covered by the reimbursement, providers may also bill the schools a leasing fee.

Brette Arbogast, director of technology for the Appomattox County School District in Virginia, saw problems with E-Rate in 2015, in part because of a lack of competition among technology companies bidding on school business. Arbogast figured out his school district could save a lot of money if it built a network itself rather than hiring a private internet-service provider. Though the savings potentially amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, without internet access in students’ homes, the program would do nothing to address the homework gap.

A recent amendment in FCC policy was a game changer. Until last year, E-Rate-funded networks could only serve the grounds of schools or libraries. In 2016 the FCC reformed the rules so that networks funded with E-Rate could reach off-campus to serve students during non-school hours. The district quickly capitalized on the change.

The school district became a certified ISP and an E-Rate provider – a process that takes about a year. Once they had built the network to serve the school, they cooperated with a municipality that helped finance Wi-Fi radios, which the school connected to the network. Those Wi-Fi devices provide internet access to students in their homes after 4 p.m., thus getting them online to complete their homework.

Before access was expanded, the school suspended plans to distribute iPads to every student. A survey had found that 59% of students in the county did not have home internet access except for smartphones connectivity. Once connectivity was established, the district could move ahead with its technology plan.

The new rules provide greater value for the school and its students. “Everyone in the U.S. who has a phone contributes to E-Rate through a fee attached to their bills,” says Arbogast. “But they’re paying for a resource that’s only used 25% of the time.”

Other Districts Could Adopt the Approach

Communities and their school districts can replicate Appomattox County’s strategy nationwide. Arbogast found it “surprising how many school districts I talked to then didn’t know about the [FCC E-Rate] change. Now, there are schools planning and purchasing equipment for a set up similar to ours, so I’m hoping we’ll see a surge of the schools closing or eliminating the homework gap over the next year.”

School districts that face a big homework gap can consider several actions. Community broadband planners and school districts need to become knowledgeable about of the E-Rate program and the rules for capitalizing on it. Districts can assess quickly whether they should become an ISP. Arbogast and his colleagues in other districts have felt large ISPs have a monopoly on E-Rate fund and take advantage of that by offering high buildout costs and low speeds.

“Schools need to seek out ways to cut the on-going leasing of fiber in favor of buying fiber and completing buildouts,” says Arbogast. “Imagine how much money you can save by eliminating leases.” In Appomattox County, the leases are $50,000 to $75,000 for each school.

Originally, ISPs were allowed to lease fiber to schools as an incentive for ISP’s to complete last-mile buildouts. But this thinking is obsolete. Fiber infrastructure has decreased a lot in cost.

Municipalities can assist the effort by providing wireless infrastructure. The Wi-Fi radios are relatively inexpensive and when the jurisdiction or school district owns the network, they don’t have to charge for the internet connection to the wireless, since the fiber is already installed.

An ideal partnership might be to form a fundraising triumvirate among schools, libraries, and hospital/medical facilities. E-rate can potentially fund public libraries as well as public schools. The FCC’s Healthcare Connect subsidizes healthcare providers in rural areas for up to 65% of high-speed broadband connectivity, telecommunication services, and new construction.

“Communities can create a consortium of libraries, schools and hospitals to create a broadband network so you have the beginnings of infrastructure that the rest of the community can expand,” observes Justin Volker, an industry expert who spent three years managing the E-Rate program for a rural K-12 school district. “You will have a hub that is funded with subsidies that were designed for this purpose, to get more people connected.”

The approach also addresses the real sticking point with internet access, Arbogast says. “The problem is not the kids don’t have access. They can’t afford it,” Arbogast said.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of Building the Gigabit City. His latest analyst’s report is “The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.”

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