As schools in North Carolina reopen this month, whether for in-person or remote learning, a focus on bridging the digital divide remains a priority of state leaders. Yet there are no long-term solutions to accomplish that goal.
Jeff Sural is the director of the broadband infrastructure office for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. He told School Transportation News that like every state, North Carolina struggles with validating snapshot data provided at the national level. Despite 95 percent of all North Carolina households having access to broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission, he shared that his office believes that number is overstated.
He said his office has collected its own data that indicates close to a quarter of a million North Carolina households don’t have broadband access. Sural shared the department is in the process of conducting a new survey to get an even greater understanding of the availability of internet access across the state.
“In general, we see certain pockets of the state that are really struggling in terms of access,” commented Amy Huffman, a digital inclusion and policy manager for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
In 2017, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed House Bill 310, which reforms the collocation of small wireless communications infrastructure to aid in the deployment of technologies. Sural said after that bill passed, there’s been increased adoption and ramp-up in progress across the state to provide another tool to help connect those in need. Yet he shared he doesn’t believe it’s the answer to connect those without broadband access.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate introduced SB 1699 in June 2019 to better streamline the process for cellular providers as they site locations for installing 5G equipment. It would essentially better distribute the sitting process for cell deployment, but it stalled in committee.
Sural explained he doesn’t see 5G as a significant contributor to closing the digital divide at this time because adoption is occurring mostly in urban areas. He suggested there are relatively few internet access issues in urban areas compared to rural areas. While he said 5G could provide a little more coverage and connect a larger number of people or machines, it doesn’t provide the necessary connectivity to rural areas at this time, which remains his department’s focus.
“5G can be a great technology that’s going to help bandwidth speeds, particularly for the Internet of Things and everything from helping municipalities monitor traffic flows and parking meters and utilities. All of that is going to be a benefit from 5G,” he added.
Instead, he said his office is working with districts to install hotspots and Wi-Fi routers in school buses. He noted that Wi-Fi and 5G are two different technologies, as Wi-Fi is used in a home or a classroom setting and 5G is cellular connectivity.
He shared that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) appropriated $1 million to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction was distributed to individual school districts for purchasing school bus Wi-Fi equipment necessary for students to connect to online assignments.
“We see it as a good and helpful tool for a lot of students right now, but it is a temporary solution,” he said.
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He opined that he views school bus Wi-Fi as more appropriate for serving long-term student needs while they ride on the school bus home or to school, but it should not be considered a panacea for the digital divide that COVID-19 school closures have highlighted.
“Going forward, some school districts have used [Wi-Fi] in all activity buses for sporting teams that go out after school, as it enables the students to connect to the internet and complete their homework assignments,” Sural said. “And so, we see that as a useful tool to serve specific educational needs. But as far as a long-term solution for internet connectivity for the 1.5 plus million kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the state … we wouldn’t see it as a long term solution that would support the type of situation we’re in now, where significant numbers of students are remote learning.”
Editor’s Note: Read more on school bus Wi-Fi in the September issue of School Transportation News.