Schools are getting innovative with bringing broadband to students who need it.

Michael Calabrese and Amir Nasr at New America look at schools in the pandemic. They have been hard hit with need and many have gotten innovative about how to get broadband to the students who need it to ensure a more equitable experience for all

The problem…

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep inequities in the United States, and the lack of high-speed broadband access has been front-and-center because this public health crisis has required a large share of the population to work and learn from home. Among those most adversely impacted have been America’s students. The pandemic resulted in the near total shutdown of schools last spring, impacting 55.1 million students at 124,000 U.S. public and private schools.1 Schools shifted to remote learning almost overnight. The prevalence of remote learning continued into the 2020–2021 school year, with only 24 percent of school districts returning to in-person instruction full-time.

Exacerbating the problem…

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has both the authority and the resources to mitigate the homework gap and yet it has refused to act. The FCC oversees the Universal Service Fund, which spends billions of dollars each year on several programs with the statutory goal of connecting all Americans to advanced communications, including specifically for education.

The homegrown solutions…

Thankfully, hundreds of school districts around the country have not waited for the FCC to grant them more E-Rate funding or flexibility to allocate E-Rate funds to meet this challenge. This report profiles many different examples of school-sponsored broadband networks that have been built and deployed for educational purposes both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years prior.

An outline of the solutions they detail…

This report profiles many different examples of school-sponsored broadband networks that have been built and deployed for educational purposes both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years prior. In Part II, we profile more than a dozen school districts that have pioneered a range of innovative approaches to connecting students lacking adequate internet access at home. We start with three school districts in Iowa and California that have partnered with their municipality to build out community Wi-Fi networks that connect low-income students directly to the school’s network. The next subsection profiles school districts in Texas, California, and other states that are taking advantage of novel spectrum sharing frameworks, such as the new Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.5 GHz band, to build out private LTE mobile networks that connect students at home, and that are far more financially sustainable longer term than buying subscriptions from mobile cellular providers.

A third subsection describes efforts in Virginia and Colorado to extend the reach of school networks directly to students at home, or to community hotspots closer to their homes, using the free unlicensed spectrum known as “TV white spaces” (TVWS). TVWS refers to the locally-vacant television channels that can be used to transmit internet access over very long distances. Finally, a fourth subsection highlights districts that are outfitting school buses as Wi-Fi hotspots and parking them strategically in neighborhoods where clusters of students lack broadband at home. Some districts are locating internet hotspots in community centers, public housing, or other more permanent locations. Libraries, which are also eligible for E-Rate funding, have also been stepping up by lending out Wi-Fi hotspots and amplifying their Wi-Fi so that students and other patrons can get online even when the building is closed.

Libraries Without Borders brings broadband and other tools to Manufactured homes in Minnesota

Libraries without Borders has been offering some interesting information/communication tools in Minnesota, as outlined in their blog. (This story may sound familiar to folks who attended the Showcase portion of Broadband 2020.)

Libraries Without Borders is committed to expanding access to information, particularly to communities that need it most. To advance our mission, we constantly re-imagine how our work can take shape in order to reach remote, isolated, disconnected, and disinvested communities. LWB first brought this vision to Minnesota through our Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI), where we seek to bridge the digital divide and provide access to educational resources, one laundromat at a time. However, in many suburban and rural parts of the United States, laundromats are not common nor are they readily accessible. Given this reality, LWB jumped at the opportunity to partner with manufactured housing communities, redesigning the Wash and Learn model for MHCs and effectively bringing information, internet access, and educational opportunities to under-resourced residents in rural and suburban areas.


After conducting a preliminary assessment, LWB hosted a town hall-style meeting at Park Plaza, which gave residents the opportunity to express their vision for a community learning and literacy hub. Through participant feedback at the town hall, LWB discovered that only half of Park Plaza residents had access to a basic internet connection. While residents are aware of the wide array of resources that libraries have to offer, over 30% of people within the community reported having difficulty accessing a library facility. This is a gap that we hope to fill by increasing resident’s accessibility to a library, in effect, by bringing one directly to them.

New FirstNet Cell Site in Northern Minnesota to be Among the First Primarily Powered by Solar in Midwest Region (St Louis County)

Big news from AT&T…

First responders in Northern Minnesota will soon be getting a major boost in their wireless communications with construction underway of a new, purpose-built FirstNet cell site – one of the first primarily powered by solar in the Midwest.

The site – located on the Echo Trail north of Ely near Orr, Minnesota – is part of the FirstNet network expansion taking place across the state, bringing increased coverage, capacity and capabilities for public safety. The remote site was identified by state and public safety stakeholders as a priority location for increased network coverage and capacity to better support emergency communications.

“Minnesota’s first responders deserve reliable coverage across the state to help them effectively and efficiently address incidents. And with FirstNet, that’s exactly what they’re getting,” said Paul, Weirtz, president, AT&T Minnesota. “We couldn’t be more pleased to support the public safety mission and bring the state’s first responders – and residents – greater access to the connectivity they need. Working with public safety, we’ve made FirstNet nimble, adaptable and ready to scale for even the most severe situations as we’re seeing currently with COVID-19.”

FirstNet is the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community. It’s built with AT&T* in a public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent agency within the federal government.

That’s why AT&T has a responsibility unlike any other network provider. And unlike commercial networks, FirstNet provides real, dedicated mobile broadband when needed with always-on priority and preemption for first responders. This helps ensure Minnesota first responders connect to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency. Plus, it’s giving first responders unthrottled access to the nation’s fastest overall network experience.1

Building upon AT&T’s current and planned investments in Minnesota, we’re actively extending the reach of FirstNet to give agencies large and small the reliable, unthrottled connectivity and modern communications tools they need. Currently well ahead of schedule, the FirstNet build has already brought Minnesota first responders:

  • Purpose-built network enhancements New FirstNet cell sites in Minnesota – located in Zerkel and Graceville – have also launched. These sites were identified by state and public safety stakeholders as priority locations. With FirstNet, it’s about where first responders need connectivity. That’s what is driving our FirstNet build. These sites were constructed using Band 14 spectrum, as well as AT&T commercial spectrum. Band 14 is nationwide, high quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. Band 14 has also been added on more than 300 existing sites across Minnesota, including markets such as the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, the Iron Range, St. Cloud and the Baxter/Brainerd area.
  • Reaching Rural Minnesota – FirstNet is built for all public safety. That means every first responder in the country – career or volunteer; federal, tribal, state or local; urban, suburban or rural. That’s why connecting remote parts of America is one of our top priorities. We’re collaborating with rural network providers to help build out additional LTE coverage and extend FirstNet’s reach in rural and tribal communities.
  • Public safety-specific advanced capabilities – FirstNet is the only nationwide platform that gives first responders entire communication ecosystem of unique benefits including mission-centric devices, certified applications and always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice and data. This is like giving public safety communications the “lights and sirens” treatment so that they stay connected, no matter the emergency.
  • Unparalleled emergency support – Minnesota agencies on FirstNet also have 24/7 access to a nationwide fleet of 76 land-based and airborne deployable network assets. These portable cell sites can either be deployed for planned events or in emergencies at no additional charge. FirstNet Response Operations – led by a group of former first responders – guides the deployment of the FirstNet deployable assets based on the needs of public safety.
  • Free smartphones for life for public safety agencies – We’ve also expanded the benefits of FirstNet for Minnesota agencies – spanning law enforcement, fire, EMS, healthcare, hospital emergency departments, emergency management and 9-1-1 operations. Now, they can stay up-to-date with free smartphones for life at no additional cost on their FirstNet Mobile—Unlimited plans.2 This means first responders across agencies of all sizes will have affordable access to their network for decades to come.

The COVID-19 health crisis illustrates precisely why public safety fought for the creation of FirstNet. Where public safety goes, we go. We’ve answered the call for tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters. But with COVID-19, it is like experiencing a perpetual emergency in every community across the country. Public safety’s network is being tested in a completely new way, and it’s hitting the mark.

“FirstNet is a dedicated broadband platform for public safety, by public safety,” said FirstNet Authority CEO Edward Parkinson. “We worked hand-in-hand with Minnesota’s public safety community to understand their needs for the network. And these network enhancements are a prime example of how that input and feedback is becoming reality. We look forward to supporting Minnesota first responders’ use of FirstNet to help them save lives and protect communities.”

In addition to further elevating public safety’s connected experience in support of their emergency response, this new infrastructure will also help improve the overall coverage experience for AT&T wireless customers in the area. Residents, visitors and businesses can take advantage of the AT&T spectrum bands, as well as Band 14 when additional capacity is available.

For more about the value FirstNet is bringing to public safety, check out

EVENT Oct 21: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

From BroadbandUSA…

You are invited to join NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Practical Broadband Conversations Webinar 


Topic: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

Date:   Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Time:  2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET

Overview: The rapid shift to online learning can be a challenge for students, families, and educators – particularly in low-income, rural, and tribal communities. As the new school year begins, the longstanding issue of digital inclusion stands in sharp relief. Join BroadbandUSA on October 21st to learn how communities are helping students get connected, assisting parents and caregivers gain the skills to help their children navigate online learning environments, and transitioning educators to online teaching. This panel will explore the challenges that communities and schools are facing, their innovative solutions to keep students connected, and their plans to transition from short-term solutions to long-term sustainable programs.


  • Dr. Christine Diggs, Chief Technology Officer, Albemarle County Public Schools, VA
  • Michael Culp, Director of Information Technology Department, Albemarle County, VA
  • Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Director, Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, NM
  • Joshua Edmonds, Director of Digital Inclusion, City of Detroit, MI


  • Emy Tseng, Senior Program Specialist, BroadbandUSA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Please pre-register for the webinar using this registration link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Want to access past Practical Broadband Conversations webinars? Visit our webinar archives for past presentations, transcripts and audio recordings.

Sibley East Public Schools opts for in-person schools; poor broadband is one reason

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

A rural school district southwest of the Twin Cities has become the first to test the limits of the state’s guidelines for school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board of Sibley East Public Schools voted last month to shift from hybrid to in-person instruction for all students — rejecting the recommendations of the district’s superintendent, state education officials and the state’s virus-count metrics for reopening as the number of local cases rose. Board members said they were following the wishes of a majority of parents, who are struggling to balance work with their children’s complicated schedules, and trying to help students who can’t log on in areas with spotty broadband connections.


Plus, pressure from the community was intensifying. Parents, many of whom commute more than an hour to jobs in the Twin Cities or work in factory jobs or in other positions where working from home isn’t an option, were struggling to balance their schedules with a hybrid school plan. Some areas of the district, which covers the cities of Arlington, Gaylord and Green Isle, lack the broadband connections needed for distance learning.

Sibley County ranks 49 (out 87) for broadband access with only 63 percent of the county have access to 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up; and only 74 percent having access to 25/3 access. I have talked to groups in several counties about their broadband coverage and most report that with multiple people working and/or taking classes online that 25/3 is not fast enough.

How are UMN students experiencing telehealth? Mixed bag

The University of Minnesota’s  Minnesota Daily Podcast, looks at…

the Boynton Mental Health Clinic’s coronavirus response and patients’ reactions, speaking to providers at Boynton and students who have experienced virtual therapy.

The experience sounds much more mixed than I would have anticipated. They spoke with students and health care providers. Healthcare, especially mental health care, went online in early March due to COVID, as soon as the campuses closed. In March, they saw a sudden drop in mental health appointments, often based often on policies of a students home state as well as because need for therapy may have changed as students went home. But eventually that number went back up.

As I listened I try to track the pros and cons of remote telehealth:

Complaints about telehealth:

  • It doesn’t capture body language.
  • It would be difficult to build a rapport if you had never met in person.
  • Difficult without broadband.
  • Difficult when home isn’t a safe place.
  • Availability depends on students home state when they go home.
  • Digital skills are required


  • It is more convenient.
  • Can do it from a distance.
  • Students can keep connected from home.
  • Able to see students who are sick or in quarantine.
  • Reaching students who were hesitant to come into the office in the past due to stigma.
  • Online doesn’t require masks, in person does. Hard to read a face behind a mask.

Love it, hate it or site somewhere in between, telehealth is here to stay – even in a post-COVID world. Despite the shortcomings, it is a way to encourage new patients, to maintain continuity for a transient population and it keeps people safe.

46 percent of MN school CARES funding so far going to technology

MinnPost reports on how CARES funding is being spent in the schools in Minnesota. First a quick summary of the programs…

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely. That includes $244.8 million via the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), $38 million via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, and $140.1 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) aid.

Each comes with its own parameters of allowable uses and timeline. The bulk of these dollars are allocated on a per pupil basis, with some priority given to low-income students. And while the amounts available are largely non-competitive, school leaders must still submit a budget application to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval in order to access their funds.

As of Wednesday, the state Department of Education reports that only $111 million in applications, across all three buckets of funds, had been approved. Since there’s a tighter deadline for CRF funds — in which applications must be signed and approved by Oct. 1, with funds spent by Dec. 30 — the bulk of applications received to date fall into this category.

There’s still a lot of money to be requested but early days, it looks like technology is the biggest request…

By the end of last week, the Minnesota Department of Education had only approved about $9 million in budget applications submitted across all three buckets of funding. Breaking that amount down into eight categories, about 46 percent of budgeted items fell into the “technology” category. Expenses in the “instructional support” and “operating” categories made up another 41 percent of that amount, with the remainder falling under the following categories: transportation, nursing, non-instructional support, contracts and other.

COVID-inspired free tutoring for Minnesota kids preK-8 through AmeriCorps Serve Minnesota

There’s a story behind this initiative –based on students’ need and AmeriCorps talented team and infrastructure. For busy parents who are juggling working and trying to facilitate teaching from home, I have something that might help. Remote tutoring that’s free. You don’t have to drive a kid anywhere or worry about exposure to COVID. You don’t have to pretend to understand how new math works. All you need is sufficient broadband…

Do you want to learn more about this new initiative to bring Reading Corps and Math Corps directly to families? Here’s how to works:

If you are a Minnesota family with a child in PreK – 8th grade, it’s easy to get started:

  1. Visit Reading Corps/Math Corps online for a personal consultation – it’s FREE! —
  2. Meet with a literacy or math expert to discuss the needs of your learner(s)

Based on the identified needs of your student, you’ll either:

  • Be matched with a reading/math specialist who will work with your learner(s)directly
    to provide skill building and practice (likely in a virtual setting) and/or
  • Receive resources and activities you can do at home to support learning

Schools across the country rely on Reading Corps and Math Corps to support students who need extra help. Our highly trained specialists focus on skill building and use research-based activities proven to work. For homework help and other assistance, please contact your child’s school.

MN college students donate devices to help senior connect with doctors

KSTP TV reports…

The pandemic has left many people feeling lonely and often, it’s our seniors who are especially isolated.

Now a group of Minnesota college students is providing technology to keep them connected to their doctors.

“It’s just really fulfilling,” said Saketh Kollipara, Sophomore at Emory University.

On Friday the students made a special delivery dropping off used iPads, smartphones and laptops.

“A lot of our patients don’t have access to these types of devices,” said Abbie Zahler, director of Community Health and Grants Management at the Neighborhood Healthsource Fremont Clinic.

It’s all part of the student run, national non-profit called Telehealth Access For Seniors, and local students raised money to make sure local patients at the Neighborhood Healthsource Freemont Clinic and Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis have the resources to better connect with their doctors.

Senators Smith and Klobuchar join others to ask FCC to use E-Rate to connect students now

Senator Smith and Senator Klobuchar join a list of 30 senators sending a letter to ask the FCC to use e-rate to get students the broadband they need to distance learn if and when they need to do so…

As a new school year begins, students across the country are increasingly returning to virtual classrooms due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. 1 These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. 2 Without urgent action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we are deeply concerned that they will fall further behind in their studies. The current emergency demands that you take immediate action to help our nation’s most vulnerable children.

We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this “homework gap” without further delay. The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to start connecting students immediately.

Red the full letter

Blandin funded computers help school (in Brainerd) transition to online when needed

I’ve been talking to counties about broadband and COVID. Most rural counties seem to be sending kids to school at least on a hybrid basis. (Often teaching online too for families who opted for that choice.) But they are all preparing for a quick change. The Brainerd Dispatch reports on what happened at Discovery Woods in Brainerd when they had to make a quick change…

Students at Discovery Woods in Brainerd will spend the next four weeks learning from home following confirmed diagnoses of two cases of COVID-19.

Leaders of the Montessori-inspired public charter school informed parents of the decision Tuesday, Sept. 15, to transition from a hybrid learning model to distance learning. Executive Director Kristi Crocker confirmed the cases and change to the learning model in an email Wednesday.

That transition was made a little easier with support from the Blandin Foundation

“We have even had TheShop (Brainerd Baxter’s Youth Center) reach out to let us know that through funding from the Blandin Foundation they are able to offer free desktop computer systems complete with mouse, keyboard, and monitor to families in need,” Crocker wrote. “It is that type of support that makes you realize why you live in the community you do.

Many kids in the Twin Cities are distance learning – tough for kids experiencing homelessness

I have been talking to folks in different counties about broadband and COVID. I think everyone I’ve talked to outside of the St Paul and Minneapolis has been using hybrid or full schedule in person classrooms. They are preparing for a change and most deal with families who opt for online only but most folks have kids in school at least part time.

That’s not the case in the Cities. My daughter in St Paul – all distance. Most of our neighbors – all distance. There are some exceptions. It’s hard all around but I think it’s hardest for the folks experiencing homelessness. MinnPost recently wrote about what’s happening to serve those in flux…

It’s the sort of resource barrier that districts are working to remove for many families. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools districts say they are checking in with their homeless and highly mobile families, to see if they still qualify for added services this year. But even that first step — simply connecting and sharing resources that are available, like hotspots — can be complicated, especially during a virtual-only start to the school year. Here’s a closer look at how both Twin Cities districts are supporting their homeless and highly mobile populations during distance learning at the outset of this school year.

Here is what they have been able to do…

Prior to the pandemic and resulting shift to distance learning, the St. Paul Public Schools district had already deployed a one-to-one iPad program, districtwide. District staff still had to troubleshoot internet access issues with families — and McInerney says she and her team have been helping deliver hotspots and devices to students who may be doubled up with other families in neighboring communities. But having that technology piece in place certainly made for a smoother transition.

In the Minneapolis district, students experiencing homelessness were among the hardest hit last spring. When schools shut down and all learning got pushed to a virtual format in March, Kinzley says her team identified about 1,600 students, out of about 1,900, without access to a computer or internet. “We had that gap to fill in a very short amount of time,” she said, noting engagement data dropped off initially and began to pick up again around week three, once more devices and hotspots had been distributed.

“We’re in a much better place this fall, but there are so many other barriers to engagement, beyond just making sure people have what they need,” she said.

Heading into the 2020-2021 school year, she and her team have been taking a pretty individualized approach, connecting with families to see how they can help remove barriers to distance learning. Sometimes that means sending a staff member out to a family, so they can borrow a cellphone, or arranging a cab so a parent can access registration or another school service. Beyond that, it’s more so a matter of getting word out about the various resources available to families — things like free school meal delivery for those unable to coordinate a curb-side pickup, and access to rental assistance through the Stable Homes, Stable Schools initiative, a partnership between the city, the district and other local entities.

EVENT Sep 3: Sen. Tina Smith talks with MN Education Advocates, Parents, Students on Challenges

From Senator Smith’s Office…

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith to Hold Virtual Discussion with Education Advocates, Parents, Students on Education Challenges as School Year Begins  

Watch Roundtable Discussion of Impact of Digital Divide,

Other Barriers to Distance Learning via Livestream

MINNESOTA [09/02/20]—On Thursday, September 3, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) will be joined via Zoom by education advocates, parents, and students from across Minnesota to discuss how the “digital divide” adds to the unprecedented challenges families face to stay connected as students return to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

You can view a Facebook livestream of the discussion here

At 1 p.m: Sen. Smith and the other participants will discuss the creative solutions that have been developed across the state to keep students connected and deal with other barriers to learning as the new school year begins.  

To deal with the digital divide, Sen. Smith has pushed to ensure broadband internet services are available across Minnesota, and has had her bipartisan measure to expand broadband services signed into law.  She has also supported $375 million in new funding for telecommunications-related programs as part of the major bipartisan coronavirus relief package passed earlier this year.

WHO: U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, education advocates, parents and students from across Minnesota

WHAT:  Virtual roundtable on how the digital divide, other barriers impact learning during pandemic

WHEN: Thursday, September 3 at 1 p.m.

WHERE:  View Facebook livestream of the discussion here

Bemidji State U and Northwest Technical College increase tele-mental-health

I wanted to share this because I think the increase in tele-mental-health for everyone is so important but especially for kids figuring our college and living in a pandemic. Lakeland PBS reports…

Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College are partnering to expand mental health services available to students and have received $120,000 in funding from the Minnesota State Multi-campus Collaboration Grant program. The funding will support the hiring of a new case manager, as well as provide increased support for student psychiatric care and equipment needed for secure Telehealth services.

A 2018 health survey of Minnesota college students found that more than 40% of those surveyed reported mental health issues, and 55% indicated that mental health issues impacted their academic performance.

The program “Expanding Reach: Mental Health for All” will support initiatives that strengthen BSU and NTC’s ability to accommodate student needs amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.

Catholic Spirit admonishes US for lack of ubiquitous broadband

The Catholic Spirit reports…

Network disruptions, while not as many as feared across the United States, were still fairly common. Children whose parents had no access to Wi-Fi, or broadband — or even a computer — were in the virtual dark, left to pretty much fend for themselves for the rest of the school year.

During school systems’ summer vacation, more districts were planning to reopen on a hybrid model, with students alternating days between in-person and online learning. Then the positive COVID-19 test results started to spike, and the number of deaths started to climb again, especially in the southern part of the country.

Meanwhile, personal computers — laptops, tablets and the like — were selling like hotcakes, leading to shortages. Some schools cut deals with Google to furnish Chromebooks for their students — who, of course, would use Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Gmail and more.

They highlight some issues in Minnesota…

Comcast has extended its “Internet Essentials” offer to low-income households, although complaints have arisen about uneven access and other problems. One Minnesota mother tried it before the pandemic, and said the data limit and frequent, time-consuming updates made it “the biggest headache on earth” and not worth the $9.95 monthly fee.

Roughly 25,000 Minnesota students didn’t have computers or internet at home by late spring, about 3% of the state’s K-12 students, the Minnesota Department of Education estimated, with little progress in addressing the problem over the summer.

They quote Jabari Simama…

In his book “Civil Rights to Cyber Rights,” Simama wrote that the United States had “a moral obligation to see that broadband becomes universally accessible and beneficial to the public.” The urgency of the pandemic, he argued, may actually be “an opportunity to finally make significant progress on these digital issues.”