How North Dakota Bridged the COVID-19 Home Access Gap

States throughout the country are struggling to find ways to keep their students learning while schools are closed due to the pandemic. But in North Dakota, an astounding 99.8 percent of rural students have home Internet access to continue online instruction. How has this state been so successful at solving the homework gap? The answer involves long-term planning, inter-agency data correlation, and the FCC.

FORWARD THINKING

In 1996, 14 rural telecommunications companies in North Dakota joined forces to create the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), essentially a state fiber-optic network owned by a co-op. Larger service providers did not object, because the cost of building fiber out to so many rural areas was prohibitive. By joining forces, the network was able to reduce the costs of service and reach more people. Usually, residents in rural areas struggle to get adequate connectivity built out to them because providers are unable to recoup the cost of the investment to build infrastructure. To offset this, there exist several federal programs to serve underserved areas, and rural providers in North Dakota (urged by the state) have aggressively pursued this funding for many years. Students (and non-students) in North Dakota are now reaping the benefits of this forward-thinking network buildout that happened decades earlier.

LOCATING STUDENTS WHILE MAINTAINING PRIVACY

In order to determine which students did not have access at home, multiple state agencies collaborated to identify where DCN could provide service and which homes needed connectivity. This multi-step process included:

  1. Legal Pre-work
    Prior to getting any student data, multiple stakeholders – DCN, North Dakota’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and the North Dakota Department of Information Technology (NDIT) – began working with lawyers to examine the legal ramifications of working with sensitive personal data. DPI and NDIT needed to protect student privacy; DCN needed to protect customer privacy. They started this process around March 10, 2020.
  2. Data Cleaning
    By March 17, with legal issues out of the way, DPI and NDIT sent DCN a dataset of 116,000 student addresses. DCN then had to eliminate around 30 percent of those addresses because they were P.O. boxes, as well as all addresses in the Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks metro areas (North Dakota is unique in over 96 percent of the state is served by a combination of 12 rural co-ops and 4 locally-owned commercial providers).
  3. Centralized Communication in the State
    DCN, along with the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND), served as the centralized aggregation point to connect with the state (Governor Doug Burgum’s office, DPI, and NDIT).
  4. The Crux of the Solution: Inter-Agency Data Correlation Exercise
    DCN and BAND worked closely with NDIT to overlay this student address data with their service data.
  5. Results
    As a result of that overlay, the agencies identified 2,000 homes in rural North Dakota without connectivity. Of those 2,000, BAND providers could offer immediate service to 1,865. BAND providers took equipment into unserved students’ homes and connected them to their local networks. Of those 1,865 homes, 1,762 were connected. (The remainder of the homes chose not to be connected.) In addition to providing this new service, BAND providers and DCN worked together to set up numerous Wi-Fi hotspots in school and community center parking lots, and opened them to the public free of charge.

COMMITMENT TO STUDENTS

DCN and all 16 BAND providers signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, an initiative stressing the importance of providing connectivity at no cost to unconnected families to maintain connectivity through the coronavirus pandemic. BAND providers connected the 1,762 new customers free of charge. This new traffic eventually gets on the DCN network, which is also not compensated. FCC Chairman Pai recently approached all carriers nationwide who signed the pledge and asked that they extend the period of free service, which DCN and all 16 BAND providers did. The service is still being provided free of charge as of this publication. The state hopes to recoup those costs through federal programs. Details about new federal resources that will be made available to states due to the coronavirus pandemic are still unknown.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Many moving parts aligned for North Dakota to achieve such a high rate of student connectivity at home. “The creation of DCN and the decision by the state to aggregate and provide broadband for the entire public sector – that decision of acting as an anchor tenant – was key to us having the necessary infrastructure in place,” said Duane Schell, CTO of NDIT.

This case demonstrates how crucial the state can be in bridging the home access gap. Centralized procurement, inter-agency cooperation and data-sharing, and aggressive pursuit of federal funding to offset the cost of rural builds all played a role in North Dakota’s success.