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Technical Considerations for K-12 Home Connectivity

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As you explore potential connectivity solutions to leverage using the Emergency Connectivity Fund, review these important considerations to help you make an informed decision about all available options.

 



Low-Cost Residential Broadband

Residential Broadband refers to the Internet connections delivered to homes over a physical wire or cable. It includes: 

  1. DSL: Digital Subscriber Lines that typically operate over existing copper telephone lines.
  2. Cable Modems: Broadband delivered over existing coaxial TV cables.
  3. Fiber: Internet transmitted over transparent glass fibers, often at a much faster speed than DSL or cable modems. 

Low-cost Residential Broadband refers to a specific program offered by the provider to increase equitable access to the Internet. Most often, these programs are part of Lifeline – a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program that provides discounts on Internet services for qualifying low-income consumers to expand equitable access to broadband.

For most service providers, low-cost residential broadband options include DSL or cable modem offerings. The Internet enters the location through a router and/or modem, and individual devices connect via Wi-Fi. Most plans offer speeds between 5-50 Megabits per second (Mbps), which allows students to complete activities such as:

  • Basic web browsing 
  • Send and receive email
  • Stream music and videos
  • Participate in live video calls
  • Download, complete, and upload online assignments

PROS AND CONS OF LOW-COST RESIDENTIAL BROADBAND

Pros

Widespread Service Availability

Existing residential broadband solutions, such as cable and DSL, currently serve the vast majority of homes with school-aged children. Based on S&P Global Market Intelligence and EducationSuperHighway analysis, these technologies could potentially serve 7.1 million of the total 9.2 million unconnected students – that’s 77% of students in need. In most cases, the only additional equipment needed to activate service is a self-install kit that can be mailed to the customer.

More Affordable Than Hotspots

The cost of wireline service from many national providers ranges from $10 – $20 per month. School districts are leveraging the E-rate Program’s Emergency Connectivity Fund to sponsor service on behalf of families that cannot afford it on their own, or in some cases, districts are choosing to pay for service out-of-pocket. On a national level, our analysis shows that 77% of students without broadband currently could be connected by wireline providers (from now to the end of the 2020-21 school year for a cost of $785 million.


Cons

The fine print in contracts can include, in some cases, early termination fees and/or rental equipment fees. Terms and conditions for some providers also state that program participation also may be terminated if the eligible service is upgraded, altered, or changed by the recipient for any reason (ex: Comcast). Finally, if public assistance eligibility changes, the provider might have the right to terminate the customer from the program. Be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully and clearly explain the rules of the program to potential participants.

To make it easy to find the best low-cost options available in your area, we created a simple lookup tool. Enter your zip code and discover the best options in your area to get started.


Use our Home Digital Access Map to plot unconnected student addresses on a map and view the residential broadband services available to connect them.

Personal Hotspots

Hotspots are physical locations where people can access a Wi-Fi network to connect to the Internet. Mobile Hotspots are designed to turn a cellular data connection into a Wi-Fi network.

There are two types of mobile hotspots:

Personal Hotspots

A dedicated portable device that converts a cellular signal into a Wi-Fi network (e.g. MiFi). Typically used for an individual or family.


Smartphone Hotspot

A smartphone that can be converted into a personal hotspot ( also known as tethering). Note: These are not eligible devices for the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

In this part of our toolkit, we focus primarily on personal hotspots, because they are eligible for purchase under the Emergency Connectivity Fund, and school districts can purchase and deploy these devices in bulk.

Personal hotspots typically deliver speeds between 5-30 Megabits per second (Mbps), which can vary greatly depending on the connection to your carrier.  Students can complete activities such as:

  • Basic web browsing 
  • Send and receive email
  • Stream music and videos
  • Download, complete, and upload online assignments.
  • Participate in live video calls (note that quality will degrade with multiple concurrent users)

Solutions for Individuals and Families

All major mobile carriers offer various options with different devices and data plans. Be sure to fully review and understand the terms and conditions before committing to bulk purchasing hotspots and data plans.


Solutions for K-12

Providers are working directly with school districts to connect students at home. The school district can coordinate purchases with specifications for their district (such as data limits per day, or content filtering) and deploy the hotspots as needed.

  • Consider whether a provider offers fully managed solutions or additional cloud-based management. This makes it easier to administer and manage lots of hotspots.  Providers like Kajeet offer education-friendly features such as:
    • Group management, which allows school district administrators to manage individuals or groups of students based on grade levels or subjects. 
    • Content filtering based on Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) guidelines, or school policies (e.g., filter out social media or gaming URLs). 
    • Distributing data in a pool rather than to individual devices (e.g., 50 hotspots all share 300GB of data) to allow unused data from some students to be used by others. 
    • A network guarantee to provide the student with the best hotspot connectivity out of the four major carriers no matter where they live. 

PROS AND CONS OF PERSONAL HOTSPOT DEVICES

Pros

Easily Distributed and Quickly Configured
Hotspots don’t require installation – once turned on, it’s easy to connect your device to the network. They are small and can be distributed relatively quickly via mail or in-person to students. Since they can be purchased by the district and immediately used, there is no delay or challenge with families signing up for service or waiting for installation. 

Connect Multiple Devices 
Depending on the data package you buy, hotspots can usually connect three or more devices. That means that multiple family members can access the internet via a hotspot. This is useful if there is more than one student per family that needs to access the Internet for schoolwork.


Cons

Limited Hotspot Data Plans
Note that not all hotspot data plans are created equal, and plans that have limited monthly data packages can have an impact on the student’s ability to connect, depending on their level of usage. Typical data limits range from 1 GB to 50 GB, with unlimited plans offering the highest level of flexibility for users. Depending on the terms of your hotspot agreement, when users exceed their monthly data limit, they may either be unable to access the Internet until the start of the next billing cycle or can incur additional charges based on how much data they exceed over the monthly data limit.

Limited Availability
Throughout the last year, several major network carriers have had low levels of supply availability, making it difficult to procure the number of devices needed to serve large numbers of students across the country. 

Variable Connection Strength
Personal hotspots, or any device that relies on data and the LTE network, might see speeds slow down or top out based on use. Additionally, rural areas with spotty cell service coverage make it difficult to use hotspots. If your school district covers a wide region with rural, suburban, and urban areas, consider testing in each location to see where cellular connections are strong enough to support hotspots during your evaluation process. 

Cost
Personal Hotspots can cost between $25-$300 for the device, while data plans range from $10-$50 per month. While this might be a necessary expense when low-cost wireline carriers do not have viable options, it tends to add up if there are many students in need of the plans and devices. Consider working with a provider on a managed solution to access bulk discounts to lower the cost. 

Short-Term Solution
Due to the lower bandwidths offered by most hotspots, using them to stream instructional videos or participate in live online discussions can be challenging. Teachers find themselves offering alternative lessons or modifying their curriculum to account for home-access needs – an added strain when they are often learning to use the technology as they go. As school districts adapt their distance learning programs for the future, it’s vital that students and teachers have reliable Internet access and are able to focus on learning rather than technology troubleshooting.

Challenges for Rural Schools and Students

Wireline Availability

While low-cost residential broadband is widely available in urban and suburban locations, the availability decreases as population density decreases. One report indicated that areas with a population density of 6.8 people per square mile (about the population density of Montana), wireline broadband only reaches 64% of households – a 19 point difference from urban areas.

One reason is that difficult terrain, such as mountains, deserts, or frozen ground, makes it challenging to build wired connections in the ground and has led to lower-than-average broadband penetration and use in rural America. It’s expensive to build in these areas, and if people are not there to purchase and use the service, it’s difficult for a service provider to see a return on the investment.


Less Competition

When broadband is available in rural areas, they have less choice about who provides it. A study by Brookings Institute found that rural census blocks were six times less likely to have a choice in service provider options compared to their urban counterparts. That decreases the buying power for individuals when it comes to signing up for a contract.


Personal Hotspot Cell Signal Reach

For some suburban and urban areas, wireline service can be replaced using the cellular network to connect a personal or mobile hotspot. Hotspots connect to cellular networks and are great solutions where service is strong. However, they are difficult to deploy widely in rural areas due to spotty cell signals. While the FCC and major carriers work to standardize mapping and equip rural America with additional cell coverage, hotspots, in most cases, will not close the home-access gap.

Addressing these challenges will require a multi-pronged approach, long-term planning, and (likely) innovative partnerships. In the meantime, school districts are finding creative solutions to connect their students.