WiFi Is the New Water

Christopher PiehlerDigital equity, like so many noble goals of educational technology, is a moving target. Once upon a time, equity meant providing every eligible student with equal time to sit in front of a desktop computer that sat in a computer lab. In the past few years, many districts have turned those computer labs into makerspaces and are now aiming for a new target: rolling out 1-to-1 initiatives to give every eligible student access to his or her own laptop, Chromebook or tablet.

But putting a device in the hands of every student doesn’t create true equity. Once again, the target has moved. As CoSN’s Marie Bjerede and Keith Krueger point out in a recent column, today there is a “mobility gap” between students who have constant access to broadband (at school and at home) and those who don’t.

Creative districts around the country have found a number of ways to eliminate or minimize the mobility gap. Some partner with local businesses that are willing to share their bandwidth with students so they can do their homework. Other districts offer mobile WiFi hotspots that students can check out of the library. And then there’s Coachella Valley USD (CA), where they park WiFi-enabled, solar-powered buses in low-income neighborhoods overnight.

These are smart solutions, but as data usage increases (and it will) they won’t be enough. The target will continue to move. For today’s connected students, broadband is a commodity, like electricity and water.

Fortunately, some help might be on the way from the federal government. The FCC is in the process of pondering plans to modernize the Lifeline program, which has previously provided basic telephone service to families that can’t afford it. One possible change on the table is expanding the program to include home broadband connectivity (which the FCC calls “essential to participate in society”) for those who need it most.

Adapting this program to include broadband access makes perfect sense to me. For today’s students, a reliable connection to the Internet truly is a lifeline.

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal.