Future of Learning

A school district is building a DIY broadband network

Internet will be beamed into student homes on frequencies set aside for schools decades ago -- but mostly sold off to business since then

Eric Bredder (second from left), a teacher at Monticello High School, confers with students using the CNC milling machine, one of several computer-guided fabrication tools used by his classes.


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The floor-to-ceiling glass wall between the high-tech fabrication lab and the hallway at Monticello High School in Albemarle County, Virginia, is meant to showcase the hands-on, self-directed learning done there.

“I give the kids access to all the tools pretty much right off the bat,” said Eric Bredder, with a sweeping gesture taking in the computer workstations, 3-D printers, laser cutters and milling machines, plus a bevy of wood and metalworking tools that he uses while teaching computer science, engineering and design classes. But Bredder can’t give students the tool he considers most indispensable to 21st-century learning — broadband internet beyond school walls.

“This is an equity issue,” said Bredder. “If some kids can go home and learn, discover and backfill information, while other kids’ learning stops at school, that’s a huge problem.”

Whether it’s used for homework-assignment web searches, streamed video tutorials, educational apps or collaborative multimedia projects, fast internet at home is rapidly turning into a necessity for America’s students. Yet, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, about five million households with school-aged children are mired in the so-called homework gap, because they can’t afford broadband or they live in underserved rural areas, such as the expanse of farms and hillside vineyards of this Virginia district spreading south from Charlottesville to the small town of Scottsville along a bend in the James River.

In places like Albemarle County, where school officials estimate up to 20 percent of students lack home broadband, all the latest education-technology tools meant to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps can widen them instead. So, rather than wait for reluctant commercial internet providers to expand their reach, the district is trying an audacious solution. They’re building their own countywide broadband network.

Still in its early stages, this ambitious project relies on a little-known public resource — a slice of electromagnetic spectrum the federal government long ago set aside for schools — called the Educational Broadband Service (EBS). Some internet-access advocates say EBS is underutilized at best, and wasted at worst, because loose regulatory oversight by the FCC has allowed most of the spectrum to fall into the hands of commercial internet companies.

The resulting spectrum scarcity may be the most daunting of the legal, technical and monetary challenges faced by any district hoping to create its own broadband network. But a few pioneering districts have shown that it’s possible, and Albemarle County has joined a nascent trend of districts trying to build their own bridges across the digital divide.

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Standing outside Monticello High School, it’s easy to spot Carters Mountain about two miles to the east, thanks to the crowd of radio towers perched near its peak. Built on land leased from an orchard, the towers rise above pink-and-white-flowering apple trees, and are operated by TV and radio stations, as well as telecommunications companies. On one of these towers, the Albemarle County schools have hung base stations that link to broadband internet beamed up from the roof of a nearby elementary school. The hardware on the towers then blasts that connection about 10 miles into the valley below. Carters Mountain is the first of four planned mountaintop tower sites that will help blanket the county with broadband in the next two years.

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Vince Scheivert, chief information officer for Albermarle County Schools, gives computer advice to Cassidy Watkins (left) and Madeline Rice, both Burley Middle School students.

Vince Scheivert, chief information officer for the county’s schools, is leading the network build-out. “All our students should be provided with the same tools to be successful in today’s world,” he said. “We don’t decide which students get textbooks based on their address, so we shouldn’t do that with digital access.”

Towers are critical parts of the broadband network, but they’re expensive (a new tower can cost $100,000 or more to erect), and getting the permits can be tricky, too. So, before the build-out began in 2014, Scheivert made a deal with the county’s emergency services providers, which have several towers for communications: If the schools could use the towers, then the police, fire and EMS departments could use the school district’s broadband in remote areas and in places where large crowds swamp commercial wireless networks.

One site in this partnership needs a new tower, and the others require extensive permits. Scheivert and his team also plan to build towers at a few schools. In the meantime, they have been testing the reach and reliability of the Carters Mountain signal, while also creating the network’s backbone — burying 12 miles (of a planned 85 miles) of fiber-optic cable to ferry huge amounts of high-speed data between school-based transmitters, receivers and servers, and regional data hubs.

The final link in the network will be the “client units,” or outdoor routers — one for every household with students — that will pick up internet from the towers and connect to school-issued computers (and only to school computers), free of charge.

Scheivert’s goal is to build the network without new money from taxpayers, and so far he’s been successful. While the federal government awards billions of dollars annually to get schools and libraries online, through its E-rate program, Albemarle’s project is technically ineligible for that because it’s “off campus,” even though it will be an extension of the school network with all its security, filters and firewalls.

Funding aside, at first Scheivert and his team had trouble even finding a hardware manufacturer willing to do business on such a small scale. “The Ericssons of the world and the Motorolas wouldn’t return our calls,” he said. Eventually, however, they found companies willing to do business with them, including Huawei in China and Florida-based Airspan Networks.

Radio towers rise above an apple orchard on Carters Mountain, outside Charlottesville, one of four planned mountaintop tower sites for Albemarle County School’s broadband network.

Those companies have found a ready market among the small but growing number of schools and communities giving DIY broadband a try. Among the other pioneers is Northern Michigan University’s chief technology officer, David Maki, who has spent the last few years partnering with districts and local governments in the state’s remote Upper Peninsula to expand a broadband Educational Access Network from town to town. And in California’s rural Central Valley, Jerry Waymire, the assistant superintendent for information technology for the Kings County Office of Education, has spearheaded construction of a broadband network in several districts, including Corcoran Joint Unified. The Corcoran superintendent, Rich Merlo, credits the off-campus broadband with fueling an ed-tech transformation that’s coincided with a drop in suspensions, fewer failed classes, better standardized test scores and higher graduation rates.

“We can extend the learning day. We can flip the classroom. We know kids can be more efficient in their work, and access information wherever they are,” said Merlo. “There’s been a real positive change in the culture.”

***

Of course, towers, base stations and routers are nothing without a license to beam all that data through a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) divides up the spectrum into allowable uses, such as for TV, radio, satellites and mobile data. Nobody can own spectrum, but they can get a license to use specific frequencies, which the FCC grants by geography. That’s why, for example, 92.9 FM is alternative rock in Boston, sports talk in Atlanta and classic hits in Tulsa.

With skyrocketing demand for bandwidth and mobile coverage, internet companies have been forking over millions of dollars for spectrum licenses when the FCC occasionally auctions them. And yet, decades ago, the FCC granted thousands of spectrum licenses — free — to educational entities nationwide, including Albemarle County schools, for a range of frequencies now known as the Educational Broadband Service. Most EBS license holders, however, can’t use their portion of spectrum the way Albemarle County has. Explaining why requires some history.

The EBS spectrum was first called ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service), back in 1963 when the FCC reserved it for broadcasting instructional TV in classrooms. But teaching with TV never really took off, so to spur use of that part of the spectrum, the FCC let license holders lease “excess” bandwidth to commercial broadcasters — with the allowed portion growing to 95 percent of each license by the mid-1980s.

While some license holders leased their spectrum in the 1980s and ’90s, the market for it remained somewhat sluggish until 2004, when the FCC changed the permitted use for that part of the spectrum from television to internet and renamed it EBS. Suddenly, all those sleepy educational spectrum licenses were collectively worth $75 billion, according to an independent valuation for the FCC. As one account of the switch put it, “this spectrum real estate went from swamp land to ocean front property immediately.”

A bank of servers used by Albemarle County’s broadband network housed in a data center at Albemarle High School.

According to the FCC, in addition to enabling new modes of instruction, the newly allowed use of the spectrum set aside for broadband internet would help close the digital divide. Introducing the EBS changeover, the FCC commissioners wrote: “By these actions, we make significant progress towards the goal of providing all Americans with access to ubiquitous wireless broadband connections, regardless of their location.”

By that measure, EBS has fallen well short of its promise, according to some digital-access advocates. After the rule change, internet companies started gobbling up educational spectrum, offering big money to lease school districts’ maximum “excess” of 95 percent for up to 30 years. At the time, many cash-strapped schools lacked the technical expertise to consider their own broadband networks. It was far easier to use the money from lease payments than to use the spectrum itself.

Exact dollar figures for the deals are hard to come by, because most lease contracts are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements. However, interviews with lawyers who negotiate spectrum leases, along with tax disclosures of nonprofits with spectrum licenses and a few contracts made public in lawsuits, reveal a wide range of lease payments — from tens of thousands of dollars for a rural license to millions of dollars for spectrum in a major city.

By the time educators realized how critical off-campus broadband access was for students and how slowly commercial internet providers were bringing service to low-income and rural communities, it was too late. The vast majority of existing EBS licenses were locked up in long-term leases, many of which don’t expire until the 2030s.

“We’re looking at a public asset, designated to do public good, and in the end, it’s mostly just generating private profit,” said Zach Leverenz, founder of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that provides low-cost internet, computers and digital literacy courses.

“Five percent is nothing. It should be at least 50 percent,” said Kevin Walker, founder and president of Project Appleseed, a nonprofit that fosters family engagement with schools, often with the help of technology. Indeed, for setting up broadband networks, virtually nothing can be done with 5 percent of licensed spectrum; it’s not enough bandwidth to sustain the necessary high-speed data traffic.

A row of 3-D printers and computer workstations are among the tools used by students in Eric Bredder’s computer design and engineering classes at Monticello High School

From the outset, the FCC had also required these leases to ensure a small amount of “educational use” of the spectrum. While the rule — 20 hours a week per channel — made some sense for TV programming, it’s unclear how hours of internet “use” should be calculated. (Would 20 hours of one student logged into Google Classroom, or 20 students logged in for one hour, suffice? Are teachers “using” the resource when they’re reading email and typing responses, or just when they hit send?)

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The FCC did not return emails and phone calls requesting an interview for this article. But the commissioners have previously rejected petitions to increase the 5 percent reserve or to clarify the educational use rule, explaining that they simply “rely on the good faith efforts of EBS licensees to meet these requirements.”

Many leases arguably satisfy the educational intent of EBS by providing money for teachers and other school expenses and by giving license holders some free internet accounts on the commercial service. There’s no way to keep tabs on any of this, however, due to the nondisclosure agreements.

While much of the EBS spectrum will be controlled by commercial internet providers for the next two decades, there are exceptions. Some early leases were for just 10 or 15 years, for instance, and will expire soon. And a number of lease holders fell prey to economic realities —the company that had leased Albemarle County’s spectrum, for example, struggled in the great recession and had to back out of the deal in 2012.

Finally, there are still many remote areas of the country where no EBS licenses have ever been issued. That’s how spectrum was found for broadband in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and in Kings County, California. For now, however, gaining access to that spectrum requires a lengthy, cumbersome and potentially expensive application for a special waiver from the FCC, which stopped issuing new educational spectrum licenses in the 1990s. To qualify for the waivers, the spectrum must be used entirely for education and, importantly, the license cannot be leased.

In 2014, the national association of EBS license holders sent the FCC a proposal to make a public inventory of available spectrum, and then gradually open it up for applications from school districts and nonprofits. The FCC has yet to officially respond.

***

Back in Albemarle County, Scheivert and his team plan to hand out the first shipment of nearly 1,000 routers as soon as they arrive from their Chinese manufacturer, hopefully before the end of this school year. First served will be folks who live within range of Carters Mountain, including several families with kids at Monticello High School and Walton Middle School, located about halfway between Charlottesville and Scottsville.

Marie Vinel uses the internet to teach the history of “Cinco de Mayo” to her Spanish class at Walton Middle School.

Seven years ago, Walton was the first school in Albemarle County to give every student a laptop. Textbooks have given way to Google Classroom and the Blackboard Learn management system, and lessons are assigned, submitted and assessed online. There are classroom Twitter and Instagram feeds through which teachers celebrate student work and post announcements for parents. The school building itself has Wi-Fi, but a recent survey found that about one-quarter of Walton students had limited or no internet at home.

Josh Walton, the school’s principal, pointed out that a big part of the internet’s promise in education is to give lower-income and rural students digital access to the academic and cultural amenities enjoyed by their more affluent, urban peers. “But, without internet, these kids are now disadvantaged two ways, and that opportunity gap grows even more,” he said.

Students without home access squeeze in a little more time online whenever possible, sometimes by skipping lunch to camp out in the school library, or by cannibalizing a half-hour period at the end of each day called “tutorial,” meant for kids to get help in tricky subjects. Every fall, students are shown how to download assignments from Blackboard before they leave school, so they can complete them offline at home and then upload them again the next day.

But those workarounds can be stressful, acknowledged Marie Vinel, who teaches Spanish part time and has two kids at Walton. “I know I can’t assign homework that is internet-based,” she said. “It just wouldn’t be fair.”

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Another Walton parent, Selena Garcia, takes her seventh-grade son to the public library or sometimes to McDonald’s for free Wi-Fi access, even though the late-evening trips are a strain on her two younger kids. The only internet at Garcia’s house is her phone’s $45 per month data plan, which chokes off the connection speed after just five gigabytes’ use. Her kids love to read, and they want to download new books rather than re-read the paperbacks at home. Her seventh-grader wants to practice math with an app, so he doesn’t fall behind in class.

“My son gets pretty frustrated,” said Garcia, who occasionally relents and hands him her phone for math practice. “When I say, ‘OK,’ I look at him and see a little bit of ease come over him.”

Next year, Monticello High School will expand class offerings in computer science, engineering and design, and another teacher will join Bredder in the high-tech fabrication workshop.

“We’re starting to ask the kids what they want to do, and it’s having an impact,” said Bredder, who hopes the county’s broadband expansion will keep pace with the transformation of education made possible by the internet’s vast resources.

“It blows my mind when a kid comes to class and says, ‘Hey, look what I made with Blender [the open-source, online design software]’ or ‘Look what I programmed,’ after they went online for research and troubleshooting, and did their own thing,” he said. “That’s a pretty amazing piece of self-directed learning. And that’s what we should be setting our kids up for.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the Digital Divide.

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