The Digital Divide Complicates School Reopening Plans

A young girl sits at a desk, looking at a laptop screen showing a man reading a book aloud

As we mark the beginning of the school year, Vint Cerf and Martin “Marty” Cooper, two luminaries in Internet and communications technology, weigh in on the challenges facing virtual learning.

By Vint Cerf

It is nearly the end of summer but not the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nor, for many, the end of the world. But it is a very complex time. Absent an assured and tested vaccine, we have only palliative methods available: masks and social distancing, frequent hand washing, and surface sterilization. 

In normal times, students of all ages would be returning to school, but these are not normal times. While some schools have rearranged their routines and facilities to accommodate the necessary social distancing, many can not. This means that remote learning is the only solution available for many students and families, whether they are ready for this scenario or not. Not every home or school is equipped to accommodate this practice. Setting aside obvious problems, like having a conducive space to hear lectures and to study, many homes are not well equipped—or equipped at all—with Internet access. As Roberto Gallardo from the Purdue Center for Regional Development points out, nearly 40% of households earning under $35,000/year have no Internet access at all.  Many schools, especially those in more rural parts of the country, are also un- or under-connected. High-speed Internet, sometimes referred to as “broadband,” may not be available or may not be affordable. Moreover, there is debate about what constitutes “broadband.” In my experience, quality video conferencing applications require symmetric speeds in excess of 100 Mb/s. 

Many video conferencing applications take in multiple video streams, aggregate them, and send them out again as multiple streams of reduced-size images. The so-called “grid” views are actually multiple streams assembled at the user’s laptop for presentation. This allows each user to choose different display modes such as “speaker view” or “grid view” or to “pin” an image. If educators are teaching from school, the school will require substantial capacity for multiple incoming and outgoing streams. The same is true at home, particularly if there are several school children using remote learning and parents who are using the Internet to work from home. It does not take long to discover that bi-directional bandwidths in the hundreds of megabits per second are desirable if not absolutely necessary. In some cases, users must turn off their video to reduce bandwidths needed in both directions. This may improve audio quality but produces a less than satisfactory experience if eye contact is needed, especially for teachers trying to gauge student attention. 

It is also readily apparent that Internet access is not uniformly available and affordable in the capacities needed everywhere that it is required for these applications. The Marconi Society is dedicated in part to helping to solve that problem. We seek to capture and render information about Internet access availability and capacity, and to define what users really need from the network for an acceptable “broadband” experience, to assist in policy making and planning. In the months ahead, the Marconi Society, in partnership with others, hopes to develop such tools and make them available to legislators and others charged with improving Internet access for schools, libraries, families, and businesses. 

See you on the ‘Net!

By Martin Cooper

The digital divide has become a crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic and crisis have made the digital-divide starkly clear—and nowhere has it been starker than in education.

Millions of students were forced into virtual education in the spring. Schools crafted makeshift solutions to give students access to the necessary technology. School buses outfitted with Wi-Fi drove around areas where home internet access might be lacking. Lucky students had access to a vast storehouse of knowledge.

A new and more advanced form of education has emerged. Those schools that embraced communications technology discovered that there were features of virtual teaching that enhance the education process. These schools will not regress to the old ways; they will adopt a new normal that combines classroom and virtual learning. The students fortunate enough to benefit from this new normal will not only learn more, they will have an increased capacity to learn.

Unfortunately, there are serious disparities in internet access according to demographics, geography, and income. Fifty-six percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year have home broadband, compared to 91 percent of those making more than $100,000. Many rural, suburban, and parts of urban areas have limited or no access. As a result, millions of students will be relegated to inferior educations and reduced human potential.

Broadband alone is insufficient; the new normal demands wireless access. The national objective should be ubiquitous wireless coverage at no more than $10 per month for students. Technological solutions are at hand to do this; private carriers must be incentivized. Other countries utilize partnerships, charge reductions, and new infrastructure. Our economic future depends on comparable solutions.