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Closing the U.S. Homework Gap Using Unlicensed Spectrum

Closing the U.S. Homework Gap Using Unlicensed Spectrum

As schools and colleges closed their doors in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, more than 55 million students moved to online learning practically overnight. This shift exposed the extent of the digital divide in the United States. Almost 17 million students had no access to the internet in their homes, while many more were impeded by unreliable internet connectivity and slow speeds. This divide wasn’t only restricted to rural locations; it was mirrored in towns and cities too.

Collaborative learning is key for students of any age, contributing to the development of higher-level thinking, communication and leadership skills. But remote collaboration requires students to be able to access classes in real-time. As schools began to open their doors, social distancing rules forced them to reduce classroom sizes, leading many to adopt a hybrid learning model that blends in-person and remote learning. This model offers schools new flexibility, particularly as uncertainty surrounding the strength of future COVID variants could impact classroom sizes or force them to close again. As a result, it’s become even more important to close the homework gap.

Aimee Rullo, Nokia Business Development Manager, SLED

Aimee Rullo, Nokia Business Development Manager, SLED

While billions of dollars had already been invested before 2020, the pandemic highlighted the need for more. The government responded by passing legislature that would help address expanded connectivity at the education, state, local and tribal level. Most recently, the government passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that includes a large amount of funding dedicated to digital inclusion and anchor institutions. This investment in technology helps increase internet connectivity to more communities.

Making spectrum more available

Funding is one aspect of making internet connectivity a reality for everyone, but when broadband goes wireless, radio spectrum availability is another one. While it’s clear that even in 2022, reliable high-speed broadband is still out of reach for some, a decision taken in 2020 is now making it more accessible and affordable.

Historically, the cost of licensed spectrum implied that it was only viable for mobile operators to use in their network rollouts. But in January 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the 3.5GHz band generally available and free to use. This enabled more private wireless network deployments and lowered the cost, making it more affordable for local authorities, school districts and educational institutions to connect students and communities.

Connecting the unconnected with private wireless in the CBRS spectrum

Because of this FCC decision, several school districts, as well as public and private entities, are already working with technology partners to bridge the digital divide.

The 2019 US Census’ American Community Survey found that almost 53,000 homes in Cleveland, Ohio, didn’t have a broadband subscription plan. That translated to 31% of the city’s total households and made it the most underserved city in the United States with a population of 100,000 or more households. During lockdowns, this homework gap became more apparent. As such, leading non-profit organization DigitalC began rolling out a private LTE network using CBRS spectrum to connect thousands of people around the city.

The CBRS spectrum can also be used to close the digital divide in rural communities. Where students’ homes are further away from the schools and colleges they attend, authorities can deploy fixed wireless access (FWA) technology. In this scenario, a radio link can be installed on top of a building to direct the signal to customer premises equipment (CPE) installed outside residential buildings or within homes to integrate with an in-home Wi-Fi network.

In rural California, as the Dos Palos-Oro Loma (DPOL) school district put a distance learning plan in place in 2020, it found it could only provide coverage for 50% of students via commercial wireless networks. Now, it’s using 4G LTE FWA technology operating in the CBRS spectrum to deliver high-performance internet to 2,400 students’ homes in the San Joaquin Valley.

Other education facilities and local authorities are also benefiting from the decision by the FCC. In Illinois, Collinsville Community School District #10 used CARES funding to deploy a private LTE network, giving approximately 500 students in the Fairmont City and State Park communities equal access to the internet at home and school.

Fresno Unified School District, the third-largest district in California, also decided to adopt private LTE to improve digital connectivity. Towers were installed at 15 schools, supporting up to 10,000 users. The network can only be accessed by students with district-issued appliances.

Enhancing homework and in-person collaboration

The 4G and 5G powered private wireless networks such as these won’t only allow students to collaborate remotely in real-time. Those in previously underserved communities will also benefit from a reliable, high-speed internet connection to easily complete homework assignments and research and apply for colleges and jobs. And, as the trend for working from home continues beyond the pandemic, they’ll be afforded even greater choice in the roles they can apply for.

But it’s not just virtual collaboration that is positively impacted; private wireless networks also enable new capabilities such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to enhance the user experience within the school and work environment.

With the ability to leverage the CBRS spectrum, cost-effective, reliable internet connectivity is now being made possible for those in previously underserved rural locations, towns and cities. As network rollouts gain traction, the U.S. homework gap will begin to close, and CBRS will serve the citizens that it was always intended for.

About the Author

Aimee Rullo is Nokia Business Development Manager, SLED. Aimee joined Nokia as a Business Development Manager for Private Wireless heading up the Education segment. She is responsible for identifying and helping develop new business utilizing Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud (NDAC). Aimee has been a leader in the technology industry for over 20 years. She has extensive experience working for global and regional carriers, selling, and helping design networks. She has worked with Government, Education and Enterprise customers, helping address their needs and setting them up for success. Aimee attended the University of Colorado Denver.