Even from as early as 2016, 79 percent of teachers reported that technology has made a big difference in making learning more interesting for students. Today, technology has become an integral part of many learning methods, including using tablets and laptops as a teaching tool, video lectures and digital blackboards, online testing, internet-based instruction and distance learning.
New digital tools are not only being used to refine and elevate learning methods — such as computer testing versus paper tests — they’re also being used to create entirely new ways of learning. Students are using the internet for virtual tours, for simulation software that visually represents complicated concepts and for accessing a much larger scope of information that would be impossible to fit in a textbook. Subsequently, the global e-learning market has been projected to surpass $243 billion at a 5.08 percent CAGR by 2022.
The plethora of critical use cases and solutions that internet access provides students, teachers, and districts clearly speaks to the importance of having reliable, strong and universally available connectivity. However, the fight for critical access is still ongoing. The 2018 State of the States Report, referenced by the FCC, notes that in 2018, 2.3 million students still were not receiving broadband service that met the Commission’s short-term connectivity goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff.
Put simply, the facet of networking that is holding many of these rural and underserved areas back is the expense and logistical complexity of provisioning the infrastructure that supports broadband access. Not to mention, providers often view investing in rural communities as a risk due to these areas’ low population densities. Cities, on the other hand, fit a large number of people in a small area and prove to be much better for quality service and cost investment.
Without capable connectivity in all areas, the educational opportunities across the country have grown increasingly disparate. Even outside of schools, a lack of sufficient broadband access in homes has led to the “Homework Gap” — a situation that occurs when a student cannot access or complete online at-home assignments. Today, some students are simply getting left behind.
So, how can the wireless and wireline industries create better inroads to support next-generation educational opportunities for all?
A Look at Wireline Advantages
Since the need for internet access and connectivity is so clearly demonstrated through the vast amounts of benefits it delivers, the government has created programs to encourage fiber infrastructure build outs for schools. E-rate, the FCC’s Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, is working to make telecommunications services more affordable and ubiquitous. Not only does the E-rate program benefit eligible schools and libraries with discounts on services and internet access, this incentive program provides a number of opportunities for infrastructure providers as well. The FCC provides incentives in the form of regulation reductions to fiber providers, helping them develop and invest in these areas, implement cheaper technology alternatives, and find more efficient ways to allocate subsidies.
Advancement is also being spurred on the wireline side due to the fact that infrastructure providers are beginning to understand the value associated with building in rural locations. In the case of this growing fiber market, getting in touch with schools early on gives providers the chance to market their solutions and educate a wider audience about the unique benefits of their infrastructure. Once chosen for financial aid from the government, choosing a provider to deliver the all-important digital capabilities is the next big step for educational institutions. In order to garner the greatest possible benefit from the help they’ve been granted, schools and communities must look for network providers that are experienced with rural and underserved cases and are proven to deliver scalable, high-bandwidth infrastructure. If providers acknowledge this need and put themselves on the map in rural areas, there are lots of opportunities to be found.
Exploring Rural Wireless Opportunities
On the wireless side, fixed wireless technologies have emerged as a promising solution to broadband access challenges. This is due to the fact that they can employ longer-range equipment to deliver broadband service in remote or sparsely populated areas — areas where other types of broadband would be too costly to provide.
The need for broadband capabilities also creates a level of ease, understanding and cooperation that wireless providers often grapple with attaining in more urban regions. While dense and populated areas do sometimes offer more protection for cost investment, they also offer their own difficulties. In cities, siting locations for antennas and other wireless deployments can be difficult, highly competitive, and face resistance from cautious local bodies. Meanwhile, rural county governments are making it easier for deployments to occur. One article reports that local individuals in rural Maryland have allowed antennas to go up on barns, silos, houses, and even trees.
Achieving Equilibrium Through Converged Efforts
As a result of these potential advantages for wireless and wireline infrastructure providers, the gap between rural and underserved education and the rest of the nation’s schooling standards is closing — but there is still work to be done.
At the end of the day, the internet is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of the contemporary world. It has the ability to deliver vital advantages to almost all industries, organizations, and individuals. Unfortunately, the power of the digital era is not yet evenly distributed. Facilitating equality is of the utmost importance and ensuring that critical infrastructure reaches rural communities is paramount for optimizing the educational landscape from the classroom to the home. It is not until digital educational equality is accomplished that the minds of future generations will be aptly, and equitably, prepared to forge a bright future for us all.