For the last few years, I’ve been working to make sure all of the students and families in the district have access to wifi. This is a worthy battle, and I hope it becomes one of the focused actions from our spring of emergency remote learning. Having quality broadband in all homes is an issue of justice. Access to information, networks of support, and modern learning are all dependent on this utility. There will be a time when we tell stories in this generation about getting broadband access like those that were told about electricity and indoor plumbing, and unfortunately, the people that received access last will be those that are invisible and marginalized in our country. Groups that include people of color and those living in deep rural poverty.
Why have I been peddling in temporary solutions? Through partnerships, the school district has acquired a large volume of wifi hotspots to support our families with their access needs. There is nothing wrong with a hotspot as a temporary, emergency tool when you are away from your stable, robust wifi, but too many schools and districts are taking a victory laps when they can drive their connectivity score to 97–98% because of these devices. Many of these devices have data throttles, limit the number of users, and aren’t designed to be the ubiquitous access needed for an entire household trying to work from home and complete assignment in our current learning environment and the new version that will emerge in the fall.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have these partnerships. I excited that our families have something, but we can’t call this a systemic solution to solve the inequality that exists from information scarcity. Hotspots are becoming the new McDonalds (I can use the wifi at McDonalds said no student ever when they were looking for a scholarly place to work and study) or wifi on buses (I want to go sit next to a bus in a parking lot to do my homework said no student ever either.) We have to push for a better solution.
Originally, this piece was going to be called lost, stolen, or broken as that has been the reality for many in our hotspot program. Devices have been misplaced in a move, gone through the wash, been taken from the house by another family member, and every other iteration that you can imagine. This happens to hundreds of things in our households each day, but having this essential tool lost, stolen or broken immediately severs the ability to complete remote learning, have access to telehealth and be connected to family members. The importance of little box can’t be understated.
So how do we move past temporary solutions that warm our hearts and band-aid a critical need for a utility as needed as water and electricity. We need to find low-cost wired solutions that go beyond the gimmick of many providers. Ten dollars a month for families in need has been peddled by companies, but the hoops to make this a reality are a bridge too far for many in crisis. Hotspots are vulnerable to disappearing. Other media friendly solutions aren’t robust, and they only create temporary good press and some solid photo opportunities.
Schools and districts need to partner with corporations to work through the red tape to provide a wired service to those that need it. The service need to be installed with ease, have plenty of throughput, include support when needed, and allow everyone to experience the type of quality broadband that fuels modern learning. Partners need to allow schools to support the programs financially to avoid additional short and long-term finance burdens on families. Partners need to figure out how the service can move with a family that is forced to a new location. Partners need to want to solve this issue not for business development purposes, but as a community development opportunity. Partners need to avoid utilizing old equipment and cobbling together something that should work for a while, but instead make sure that wiring, routers, and other equipment will grow with evolving technology innovations.
There is justice to creating equal access to information, health, and modern learning. Don’t stop short of design a lasting system that delivers what all families need.