What are local communities doing to get infrastructure to kids for online learning?

MinnPost reports on what’s happening with schools moving to remote and/or online education, in terms of capacity for local households…

Households that lack a reliable internet connection — or any connection, at all — pose an added challenge to distance learning. Rural districts have long lobbied state lawmakers to help close gaps in broadband availability that disproportionately impact their communities. Now, faced with an unprecedented ask — to prepare distance learning plans to allow students to complete their studies from home as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, if need be — rural districts are troubleshooting ways to immediately expand internet access to all student households.

This Friday marks the end of a statewide eight-day school closure that Gov. Tim Walz announced as part of an executive order earlier this month, giving school administrators, teachers and staff a student-free chunk of time to work out the details involved in delivering lessons remotely in the event of an extended school closure — a possibility that’s sounding more and more likely.

 

They take a look at what’s happening in school districts across the state. In Blue Earth…

Fletcher says her district surveyed families a couple of years ago and found that about 95 percent of its families self-reported some type of internet access, whether through broadband, fiber, or a mobile hotspot. The district also purchased a batch of mobile hotspots to check out to families in need.

In recent years, the local internet company BEVCOMM has done a good job of expanding its footprint, she adds. And it has stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis by offering districts a $3,000 donation to support the purchase of additional Wi-Fi hotspots for distribution, and by offering discounted broadband rates to low-income families.

“We purchased an additional 10 mobile hotspots,” Fletcher said, noting they’ll “be distributed to families that still do not have internet access.”

On the Iron Range…

School districts located across the Iron Range are looking to expand internet access to families currently without through the purchase and distribution of hotspot devices as well, says Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

In preparation to support online work as they roll out distance learning plans (potentially starting next week), the Hibbing Public Schools district purchased 500 hotspot devices from AT&T, he says.

In other communities, school leaders he’s in communication with say they’re looking at ways to strengthen the bandwidth at sites that are already connected — like banks and grocery stores — to create a hotspot around those facilities.

And the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools district had already outfitted its school buses with WiFi, prior to the pandemic, he says. They might consider parking their buses in various locations “to create hotspots that way.”

In Warroad…

For students in the Warroad Public Schools district, access to a device doesn’t pose a barrier to online distance learning. Two years ago, the district invested in becoming a one-to-one district.

But as more and more businesses ask their employees to work remotely, following social distancing guidance from state leaders and public health experts, Superintendent Shawn Yates says he and his team are staying mindful of the fact that “there’s only so much bandwidth” to go around.

“To that end, we’re trying to adjust a little bit, as far as our [distance learning] plan,” he said. “So we’re not doing a great deal of live streaming of lessons. In other words, there’s not a particular time that a teacher will be online hosting some kind of a chat with direct delivery to our students.”

In Foley…

Paul Neubauer, superintendent of Foley Public Schools, says he and his educators have explored the flipped lesson option — where a teacher records a lesson that’s downloaded to a device for a student to watch later on — as well. But if students still aren’t allowed to come on site, even if it’s just to wipe old lessons off of their device and download new ones, this workaround becomes a bit more cumbersome, he says.

Technically, Foley isn’t a one-to-one district. But so far the school has been able to equip nearly 200 families with a laptop for students’ use at home. For now, the district is prioritizing students in grades 4-12. If possible, they’ll extend the device distribution to younger students a bit later.

In Westbrook-Walnut Grove…

In the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools district, Superintendent Loy Woelber says they’re planning for monthly packets to be used to deliver distance learning at the elementary level.

Older students in one school community are operating at a one-to-one device capacity. For their classmates in the two other school communities served by his consolidated district, he thinks they’ll be able to get at least one device into the homes of each family with school-aged children that’s currently lacking a device to work on at home.

Even after taking measures to eliminate or reduce the hardware barriers to online learning, he’s concerned about things like weak connections — the sort of thing that’s already made conference calls with staff that needed to stay home this week hard to understand — and students relying on cellphones to complete their school work on.

 

How to quickly deploy free WiFi – from CTC Technology & Energy

As we settle into social distancing IRL (in real life), communities may want to find ways to help make online social interaction easier by setting up wifi hubs where broadband is otherwise limited or not affordable – like a manufactured home park, campus or any multi-dwelling buildings. Here are some great instructions from CTC Technology & Energy…

This approach needs to be customized for each building but would include the same key elements.

1: Ensure there is adequate backhaul to the building. A range of technologies can perform this task. If the building has municipal- or county-owned fiber, this is simply a matter of configuring sufficient capacity. If fiber is absent but reaches a nearby building, and you have line of sight to that building, mmWave, 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or other wireless technology can enable backhaul using a mast-mounted or building-mounted antenna.  (If you don’t have line of sight, 900 MHz equipment can serve the same function.) Failing these options, seek commercial service—preferably over fiber.

2: Install Wi-Fi hotspots. These should be installed in hallways, mounted on ceilings or walls (ideally in false ceilings or crawl spaces), with as much density as possible.  The ideal outcome is that no more than 25 feet or one wall separates user from the access point and there are no more than eight users simultaneously using each access point. You will want to interconnect each access point using a single Cat 5/6/7 cable to a power-over-ethernet switch with a 1000 Mbps port. A good practice in a high-rise is to have a switch on each floor and connect each floor’s switch to a building switch located in the basement or on the rooftop that connects to the backhaul service. Where appropriate, consider wireless mesh technologies so as to reduce the amount of cabling.

3: Connect users to the network. You want members of the public to easily connect to the network. Generally, this is a simple matter. Most people own some form of Wi-Fi enabled device, even if they can’t afford ongoing carrier service. Students may have received devices from their schools. What remains is to provide instructions for connecting:  usually just an SSID and a password. For others who are using city-, county-, or school-provided equipment, ideally this equipment is preconfigured with the needed applications (including remote management) and browser links and instruction screens in the appropriate language. You may also need to lock down equipment to protect against inadvertent or deliberate tampering with the operating system or other components that could compromise the network.

4: Set up user supportYour residents may need a moderate level of technical support. In ideal circumstances, a handful of people at a building or development who have basic technological skills can assist clients or neighbors if they get stuck—using text-messaging or voice calls if needed to enforce social distancing. Additionally, municipal or county staff—or volunteers from local schools or technology companies—could also assist from call centers.

5: Set policies to lessen the risk of network congestion. Gaming and interactive video use considerable bandwidth that may slow your network and limit use for critical needs during this crisis. If a locality wants to control use of its devices or its network (for example, to avoid slowdowns and bottlenecks in the building networks), it may consider blocking or limiting some content or applications on those devices, or within its network. This can be done in the network configuration or the device configuration. (Some applications used for teleworking, such as Zoom, should be whitelisted.)

Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you think through these strategies. 

 

National Nonprofit Launches Easy Census Help For Seniors

A great tool for folks who have sufficient broadband and a great jumping off point for getting seniors who aren’t online more comfortable once they get there…

Millions of seniors who had planned to get help at their local library or senior center filling out their 2020 Census online are now stuck, says Tobey Dichter, the founder of Generations on Line, a national nonprofit that simplifies the Internet for techno-timid seniors. “Certainly not the first of our worries during the pandemic, but we will all suffer the effects of undercounting older adults for a decade to come.” 

Generations on Line, which has trained more than 100,000 older people, is helping seniors get unstuck, providing free help through its new EasyCensusHelp.org. The site gives seniors a safe place to practice and hone the skills they need to enter their Census information with confidence. It includes a three-minute government-sponsored video on privacy, quick training on filling in forms, previews of some of the actual questions, and tips for Internet safety – all in a cheerful, age-respectful digital package that adapts to whatever device is being used, from tablet to desk to smartphone.

Getting more older adults to fill out the Census is critical, as many senior services are funded through the Older Americans Act, and Congress uses Census statistics to apportion resources. For Pennsylvania, it means tens of billions of dollars a year.

“Right now, even going outside to the mailbox to return a form, if they receive one in the mail, or answering a call from a government worker, as some seniors will, is problematic,” said Dichter. “Even before Covid-19, our studies showed that older people are rightly suspicious of scams and inclined not to share their information with strangers. It also revealed that many were unknowing or timid about entering their information on their computer or smartphone. More than half of people over 65 have smartphones,” she said, “but we have found most use them for very limited purposes–calls and texting.” 

Generations on Line also provides basic digital literacy for seniors through its free app “Easy Tablet Help For Seniors” suitable for families or caregivers to download in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for older friends and relatives. Based in Philadelphia, PA, Generations on Line, established in 1999, is an award-winning pioneer in reducing the digital divide.

Klobuchar, Smith, Cramer, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Sustain Rural Broadband Connectivity During Coronavirus Pandemic

Introducing the Keeping Critical Connections Act…

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), along with Tina Smith (D-MN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Doug Jones (D-AL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Barrasso (R-WY), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Todd Young (R-IN), and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act to help small broadband providers ensure rural broadband connectivity for students and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Access to high speed internet is critical for students and their families during the coronavirus outbreak,” Klobuchar said. “The Keeping Critical Connections Act would help small broadband providers continue offering free or discounted broadband services to families and students in rural areas to ensure they remain connected to school, work, and their communities during this period of economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“The federal government asked this essential industry to keep providing assistance to people during COVID—19, and they answered the call,” Cramer said. “The least we can do is make sure they are made whole when this pandemic is over.”

The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the FCC under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades—during the pandemic for low-income families who could not afford to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. The bill is endorsed by NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association, WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, and the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND).

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century. It isn’t just nice to have, it’s necessary—especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” Smith said. “Students who are finishing up their school year at home need to be able to connect to online classes. Employees who are working from home are counting on broadband to help them do their jobs. And folks are relying on the internet to help them access care through telehealth, which is also made possible by amazing health care workers. I’m glad to work in a bipartisan way to help Minnesotans stay connected during this time.”

Representatives Peter Welch (D-VT-AL) and Roger Marshall (R-KS-01) are introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“With millions of people required to stay home and students across the country learning from home, broadband access is essential,” Welch said. “Small providers get it – the service they provide is a lifeline to parents and children who need to learn, work, and stay connected with loved ones during these difficult times. This bill ensures small providers can continue to provide their essential service during and after this crisis. We should pass this bipartisan bill immediately.”

“Now more than ever we’re seeing how important it is to have access to a fast and reliable broadband connection,” Marshall said. “With the closure of Kansas schools along with more and more people adopting teleworking procedures, our rural telecommunications providers are working around the clock to ensure students, communities, and businesses have reliable internet access, no matter where they live. This bill will provide assistance to small companies trying to address the unique rural telecommunications needs posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and ensure that all Americans can remain connected during this difficult time.”

Community Use of E-Rate-Supported Wi-Fi is Permitted During Closures

This came up on a call today and will hopefully make it even easier for libraries and schools that are closed to keep their wifi networks open  to support local residents who don’t have access at home.

The FCC reports

By this Public Notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau reminds schools and libraries that are closed due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak that they are permitted to allow the general public to use E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi networks while on the school’s campus or library property.  Specifically, libraries may offer access to E-Rate funded services on their premises as well as services that are “integral, immediate and proximate to the provision of library services to library patrons”[1]—and because the mission to serve the public is ongoing, libraries are permitted to allow the public to access E-Rate funded services even when they are closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Similarly, closed schools may allow access to E-Rate funded services “to community members who access the Internet while on a school’s campus” so long as they do not charge for the use of the service.[2]  We hope

that this reminder will promote connectivity to Americans impacted by the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

We leave it to individual schools and libraries to establish their own policies regarding use of their Wi-Fi networks during closures, including hours of use.[1]  And we remind all parties that health and well-being are paramount, and to follow any applicable health and safety guidelines, including those on social distancing, as may be set out by relevant federal, state, local, and Tribal authorities.

For further information, please contact Joseph Schlingbaum, Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau, at (202) 418-7400 or (202) 418-0829 (TTY), or at Joseph.Schlingbaum@fcc.gov

 

[1] Cf. id., 25 FCC Rcd at 18775-76, para. 25 (finding that “the decision about whether to allow community access rests with the school, and we thus leave it schools to establish their own policies regarding specific use of their services and facilities, including, for example, the hours of use”); id. at 18776-77, para. 27 (“We emphasize that the revision of our rules [to allow community use of school’s E-Rate funded services] creates an opportunity for schools, but not an obligation.”).

[1] 47 CFR § 54.500.

[2] See Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, Sixth Report and Order, WC Docket No. 02-6, 25 FCC Rcd 18762, 18775-76, paras. 25-26 (2010) (E-Rate Sixth Report and Order).  Additionally, schools that choose to allow the community to use their E-Rate funded services “may not request funding for more services than are necessary for educational purposes to serve their current student population.”  Id. at 18775, para. 24.

NPR’s Marketplace looks at broadband with Chris Mitchell at Institute for Local Self Reliance

You know broadband is bubbling up as a real solution when you hear about it on Public Radio. Today Marketplace featured Minnesota’s own Chris Mitchell talking about what it would take to get everyone online in light of the call to stay home to defend against COVID-19.

Chris mentions that people are signing up for connections in record numbers and providers need to find a way to meet those needs to help keep them at home…

Yes, that appears to be the case. I think this is even more important, because many ISPs — from the biggest companies to small, local companies — are finding ways of doing 60-day or 90-day free periods for low-income families to get signed up. I think that’s really important for families that right now might be having to leave their home in order to go to a community Wi-Fi spot. We don’t want people to leave the home unless it’s essential, so if we can get people connected in the home, that would be the ideal situation.

But they also talk about communities without broadband – how can we get broadband to communities faster? Chris answers…

One of the things we definitely need to do is to let communities deal with this in their own ways. There are many states that currently limit the ability of local governments to build their own networks. We really need to see those limits go away so that communities are free to expand internet access as rapidly as they can.

And recommends that in the mid-term states can streamline the process by getting rid of policies that slow it down…

The first is that the states themselves could change the laws. There are 19 states that limit local authority to build networks, partner with local companies, and they could decide tomorrow to get rid of those limitations. The other option would be for the federal government to strike them down in some manner. Congress could do that directly, or it could condition aid of certain kinds to those states to say, “If you’re going to limit broadband investment in your state, then we’re not going to give you federal dollars to expand the networks.” This is something that really gets to me, because we’ve spent billions of dollars on networks that are obsolete, and in fact, we still are through the remainder of 2020 writing checks to big companies that are delivering very slow DSL that does not qualify as broadband. Those big companies have all had their shot, and it’s time to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to expanding internet access.

Two great ideas: submit ideas to mitigate impact of COVID-19 & free broadband for all

Sometimes two great ideas hit your email at the same time – like peanut butter and chocolate. After a morning of reading pleas on social media for everyone to stay home, someone sent me an article by Harold Feld from Public Knowledge – Want to Keep America Home? Give Everyone Free Basic Broadband. (Inherent in that idea is that everyone has a home – but that’s a larger topic for a different blog.)

Feld’s idea is straightforward…

Medical experts agree that the most important thing we can do to support the efforts against the COVID-19 outbreak is a medical protocol known by the acronym STHH, or “Stay the Heck Home.” To keep Americans home, we need everyone to have broadband. It’s really that simple. Without telework, the economy would shut down completely. We would lose half a school year without distance education. But the value of everyone having a residential broadband connection goes well beyond that in the current crisis. Want to keep people off the streets to flatten the curve? Make it possible for them to shop online? Want them to access forms to receive government aid during this economic crisis? Cut down on physical doctor appointments to avoid infecting others? Fill out the 2020 Census so we don’t need armies of Census Takers going door-to-door? That all takes broadband.

But most importantly, human beings are social creatures.

Deploying is pretty simple too…

As part of the coronavirus stimulus package, the United States government will cover everyone’s broadband bill for a basic connection capable of supporting two-way video (ideally 25/25 Mbps, but we may have to settle for the Federal Communications Commission official definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps).

Everyone is eligible and business bills back (a set and sufficient amount) to the government. The idea makes sense – but as I’ve said so often in the last week – for areas that have access. It make existing broadband affordable. Perhaps this guaranteed take rate would help make a business case work to deploy in new areas, especially if there was state funding to offset construction costs – something like the MN Border to Border gran projects.

The second great idea to hit my in-box? The State of Minnesota is looking for our ideas to support the MN economy during the COVID-19 crisis. If you have a creative idea, it’s a great place to share. Or you may have heard of a good idea, like increase funding to broadband grants, and you could share that too.