Rural schools in Arizona want to get their fast internet connections beyond their buildings and out into the community, where broadband can help provide online learning for students and families.
The Final Mile Project is an initiative of the Arizona Rural Schools Association (ARSA), which has 100 member districts.
“It might be a cliché to say it at this point, but the ‘digital divide’ is a real problem in rural communities, and it’s the same in the rural counties here in Arizona,” said Wes Brownfield, ARSA’s executive director and a retired rural school principal himself. “Building high-speed, dependable internet service to student homes is necessary for successful online learning, and right now, in many rural areas, fast and affordable internet access is just woefully inadequate.”
The Final Mile Project is identifying “anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries or hospitals, with existing high-speed fiber capacity,” Brownfield said. Those institutions can then host towers with the ability to broadcast internet service to nearby homes. Current technology and regulations can achieve an average reach of a seven-mile radius using this model.
“It’s a spoke-and-hub model, where we identify a potential project and build a tower connected to high-speed fiber,” Brownfield said. “We now have this existing broadband superhighway running through many rural areas to schools and other institutions, but a lot of homes outside of those buildings and campuses still don’t have access, at least at high enough speeds to work for students.”
Brownfield said that many schools have successfully built high-speed internet service for students and staff by utilizing the federal E-Rate Program. E-Rate is part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund, providing “discounts for telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries,” according to the FCC website.
The Final Mile Project model aims to create “measurable, achievable, doable, local projects,” Brownfield said. Once the anchor institution and hub are in place, local project partners will put together a request-for-proposals that invite internet service providers (ISPs) to serve local homes in the service radius. Local projects will utilize USDA Rural Utilities Service funding to help keep costs low.
“We’re really building a bifurcated service model, one where we can provide ‘dirt cheap’ basic service to underserved families for $10 or $15 per month,” Brownfield said. “ISPs are interested because they can add other packages to the service for additional revenue potential after we pony up for the initial node.”
Some rural schools across the U.S. have tried to use wifi hotspots to solve broadband access issues. But students still have to travel to hotspots, and they can be very slow if they use a cellular signal to connect to the internet. Brownfield said many ARSA member-schools have been inundated with hundreds of wireless hotspots that are unworkable.
“Airdropping hotspots into rural schools that don’t work outside of the building because broadband isn’t available, we’re pretty much done with that approach,” Brownfield said.
ARSA believes that through patience and successful local project development, they can help to document and demonstrate the decentralized approach to building out affordable local internet access. The group understands that public policy—and the policymakers who shape and fund those policies—are critical ingredients in achieving their goals.
“Look, we’re trying to create as many ribbon-cutting ceremonies as possible,” Brownfield said. “We are developing dozens of local projects, and we expect every policymaker from school board to state officials to want to be there and show how they support rural schools. It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t care who gets to cut the ribbons.”
The rural education group is concerned that the latest round of CARES Act funding, federal spending for Covid-19 pandemic relief, will continue to be “directed toward building the big internet superhighway conduit,” Brownfield said. “We understand that impulse, and there is a continued need, but we just want to make sure and have our place in line for the last mile service our student need.”