The education system has been through more in the past seven months than anyone would have possibly dreamed of beforehand. It’s a system that is very stressed. It’s particularly stressed in rural areas in the United States that don’t have stable Wi-Fi networks for remote learning. Worse yet, three’s no way to improve it quickly to fix the problem.
Inefficient Rural Wi-Fi Networks
It’s just not safe for students to be in a classroom situation right now. The easiest solution for most education systems was to ask teachers and students to pull together remote learning, but not all areas have the Wi-Fi in place to do that, specifically rural areas.
The remote learning system was difficult to set up, no matter the location, but particularly in rural areas where the Wi-Fi service is stressed or even non-existent. Teachers are having a difficult time reaching students who aren’t connected. It was okay last spring, as it was assumed they only had to finish out the semester, but it’s ongoing.
The infrastructure needed to change the Wi-Fi capabilities of rural areas just isn’t possible at this point. It would require assistance from the government, and frankly, federal, state, and local jurisdictions are already stressed and just can’t support such a major change at this point.
Some of the difficulty is with income in rural areas. Only slightly more than half the rural households with income less than $30,000 use broadband internet. With jobs decimated because of the global health crisis, it’s not helping get students online to learn.
The average price of Internet service in the U.S. is $60 monthly. In areas where cable isn’t available, then satellite service is the only option, but that more expensive, at an average of $100 monthly. Many rural families just can’t sustain that.
In addition to price, it’s not easy to lay cable in rural areas with a multitude of hills, lakes, rivers, forests, etc. All of this interferes with Wi-Fi. The areas are also often hit hard by power outages, and service isn’t as quick to be restored in less-populated places.
The Federal Communication Commission’s broadband standard is download speeds of at last 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. This is the minimum speed needed to stream Netflix. But some rural areas don’t have systems to support even that.
Only two-thirds of the rural U.S. has broadband access, but it’s difficult to even measure because the FCC’s maps consider a community as “served” if only one home has access.
What Changes Will Require
To upgrade the Wi-FI capabilities in rural areas so that students can get the remote learning they require would be costly. It was estimated in 2017 that modernizing the system across the country would cost between $130 and $150 billion. Frankly, there are already too many arguments regarding which industry should receive stimulus help. Earlier this year, Democrats proposed just a $1 billion investment for infrastructure, but even that low amount, a tiny fraction of what is necessary, didn’t pass.
“This pandemic has taught us that this [broadband] is not something that families need to be without,” said Alex Beene, an adult educator in Tennessee. “This needs to be just like water in the year 2020. Every home needs to have it. It needs to be running and plentiful. It’s opening our eyes to the fact that we need for education: to have an infrastructure that allows all of our families to be online.”
Certainly, Beene is right. The problem is that the system is behind the 8-ball right now. This infrastructure should have been instituted long ago. There’s no way to institute it now. There simply is not enough time nor money to get it going in time.
The sad thing is that it’s students that will be hurt the most. They don’t have the Wi-Fi capabilities for the remote learning they need. But the choices are to force them into attending schools physically, jeopardizing their health, or leaving them underserved and behind in their education.
It gets even worse for today’s students than not having the Wi-Fi needed for their remote learning. Additionally, there’s a laptop shortage because of the remote learning and the number of people working from home. The education system is just another factor of this health crisis that has no good solution.