Homework Story

Some kids come to log extra time on class projects. And yet reliable broadband is far from guaranteed in this region of towering plateaus, sagebrush valleys, and steep canyons.Like much of rural America, Garfield County is on the wrong side of the “homework gap”—a stubborn disparity in at-home broadband that hinders millions of students’ access to the array of online learning, collaboration, and research tools enjoyed by their better-connected peers.

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In total, the homework gap hits some 12 million school-aged kids nationwide, according to a 2017 congressional report, “America’s Digital Divide.”When pioneering districts try to build their own broadband networks to reach students beyond school walls, they must first navigate federal control of the electromagnetic spectrum that carries every wireless signal, from radio broadcasts to satellite communications.

To avoid interference, licenses to use specific frequencies of spectrum are tied to geographic location.

Before and after classes at Panguitch High School, a low-slung brick building nestled in the high desert of southern Utah, students find their way to Shawn Caine’s classroom.

They settle in at the computers where Caine teaches coding and software, or they head to the back room for the 3D printer, vinyl cutter, and robotics kits. Her district of Garfield County has provided a computer to every student since 2016.

Many of Garfield’s students trek to internet oases such as Caine’s classroom or one of the local businesses willing to host a district Wi-Fi router. “All their work is on that computer,” Caine says, “and they need that access.”That’s why district leaders are eager to pilot an ambitious, statewide broadband initiative.

Utah’s schools are hardwired with high-speed internet through a statewide network.The FCC is now poised to decide whether a trove of currently untapped spectrum should be given away for free to Garfield County and other rural school districts—or sold to the highest bidder.On a recent fall morning, Garfield County’s superintendent, Tracy Davis, was stuck behind an out-of-state car crawling up a two-lane highway flanked by red, rocky spires that reached into a cobalt-blue sky.“Probably lost,” Davis grumbled.Over three decades, the government gave away more than 2,000 spectrum licenses to school districts and education nonprofits, primarily in urban areas.But the FCC effectively stopped issuing such licenses in 1995, because many license holders weren’t using their spectrum, and instead making money by leasing it to commercial telecommunication companies.Knowing that some students had no broadband at home, Eyre convinced a few local businesses—a gas station in one town, a drugstore in another—to host a Wi-Fi router where kids could connect.But the challenge went beyond students with no home internet.That’s why, for instance, the same preset button on your car radio will be news-talk in one city, classical music in another, and static in between.While several slices of spectrum can carry mobile internet, the most promising for rural school districts is one the FCC first reserved for educational television broadcasts in the 1960s.An FCC spokesperson declined to comment about the merger's potential impact on the EBS deliberations.The godfather of Utah’s new educational broadband plan is Jason Eyre, who was the IT director for Garfield County Schools during their Chromebook rollout.“We branded it as expanding the classroom beyond the school,” said Eyre, who now works for Murray City Schools, just south of Salt Lake City.

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