Technology is the answer to bridge the educational digital divide

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This article was published by Mitrancourt (Mit) Majumdar, Senior Vice President and Regional Head of Services at Infosys.

Free public education is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, but the pandemic has shown that without fair access to the Internet, this right remains an unattainable dream for many students. The Internet has proved to be the modern equivalent of textbooks, without which learning is impossible.

Even before the pandemic, there was an increase in the “gap with homework” due to the growing trend of teachers who do homework that requires access to the Internet. According to a census analysis, in 2018, nearly 17 million children in America did not have access to high-speed Internet, and more than 7 million did not have computers at home. During the pandemic, nearly a third (16 million) of K-12’s 50 million public school students did not have proper Internet access, and another nine million did not have both devices and the Internet.

The problem of the digital divide affects a disproportionately high percentage of students from blacks, Latinos, and Indians, exacerbating the vicious circle of disadvantages. In addition, 400,000 public school teachers (10%) are also victims of the digital divide, which means that all their students – regardless of ethnic or economic background – are affected.

Learning limitations: network access for students

Schools and students were forced to come up with their own temporary solutions. Wi-Fi hotspots in school parking lots, public libraries and restaurants have been transformed into virtual classrooms. Some schools have come to park school buses equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved areas. Although these new measures can be seen as a desperate response to mitigating circumstances, they are by no means sustainable or acceptable solutions to bridge the digital divide.

Educators need to focus on sustainable, long-term solutions to overcome this by investing in the right technology to connect the last mile, providing download speeds of 25 Mbps and 3 Mbps recommended by the Federal Communications Commission for digital learning. There are several ways to close the existing gap in Internet connection on the last mile. As a starting point, education councils can turn to technology partners to develop and develop alternative solutions to provide cost-effective Internet connections supported by existing funding mechanisms.

For students who do not have access to commercially available wired or wireless broadband services, alternative technologies such as wireless broadband-enabled networking may be the starting point. These types of networks support fixed wireless and Wi-Fi access points or a private LTE / 5G network to cover target geographic areas. They are designed for specific places, with the added benefit that other students in target areas can potentially sign up for these services. If commercial broadband connectivity is not possible, consider other possible network options based on infrastructure availability other than school location and nearby fiber path availability (critical for WFMN and private LTE deployments).

Using unlicensed 60 GHz spectrum and equipment using Terragraph software and certified distribution nodes and customers, “wireless fiber” cellular networks can be tailored to specific areas where students lack commercially available wired or wireless broadband services. This type of network can take advantage of an existing fiber connection to serve as hotspots for connecting to the Internet, and to minimize the many barriers that providers face when laying fiber in the target area.

Deploying private LTE networks for virtual learning using a shared spectrum connection can provide students and faculty with access to a reliable network from their homes, creating better and seamless learning. These solutions could finally close the digital divide that currently costs the United States up to $ 33 billion annually from a full cohort of students who are disconnected. In addition, the savings in additional government spending through lower tax contributions and greater use of health services associated with lower cohort incomes are invaluable.

Mitrancourt (Mitt) Majumdar is Senior Vice President and Head of Regional Services in America at Infosys.

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