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Nearly a year into the efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, states continue to weigh whether schools should reopen or keep students home to learn remotely. There’s no easy answer, yet as we undoubtedly see online and hybrid learning models expand, one thing has become abundantly clear: A digital divide persists nationwide. While poverty and municipal infrastructure limitations are root causes, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem as many students and workers have been forced to work from home.

Yet the good news is we have the technology to solve this problem at a community level — and at the same time create a foundation for future smart cities.

A Step In The Right Direction

According to Pew Research Center, some 15% of school-age children don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. Consequently, many are falling behind on their education, and those in low-income situations typically are most at risk because they lack the appropriate technology to reliably access online schooling.

In my home state of Arizona, a recent Covid-19 digital access report by the Arizona Broadband Stakeholder Network found that roughly 209,000 K-12 students (20% of all children) lack high-speed internet in their homes. While connectivity is a given for many of us, their families either cannot afford it or they live in rural areas without commercial services.

However, our second-largest city, Tucson, is pursuing a creative approach to solve for the gap in its more underserved communities. Taking advantage of federal Covid-19 relief funds, the city is building its own wireless broadband network to bring free access to those who need it most. While this broadband connectivity is available to the public, unlike traditional public Wi-Fi that you might find at a coffee shop or airport, families gain access through a private, secure connection maintained by the city and its commercial partners, including Insight.

This unique public-private community wireless partnership, utilizing the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) network, provides a cost-effective and secure means for the city of Tucson to extend broadband to its citizens. But as new infrastructure like CBRS radio towers or Wi-Fi mesh network technology is built atop existing city infrastructure — be that light and telephone poles, police and fire stations, or other publicly owned structures — it also establishes a citywide data network that will serve as a foundation for smart-city plans.

With a municipality like Tucson or a school district effectively running its own network, it creates a universal ecosystem to unify data for intelligent use across communitywide transportation, safety, education, healthcare, utilities and other public services.

Access Is Everything

From remote learning to teleworking, access is the first and most vital step to continuity and productivity. Understanding the increased need caused by the pandemic, our federal and local governments have allocated funding to create access to secure and reliable internet. The CARES Act and subsequent legislation seek to address the digital divide, providing funding for municipalities to equip underserved communities with appropriate connectivity.

Securing funding, however, is only the first step in bridging this gap.

Elected leaders are duty-bound to help their communities and schools establish long-term technology solutions that give remote workers and students adequate connectivity without the security risks associated with a public network.

Often, a public-private partnership between a city and a commercial technology partner holds this key. The private sector can orchestrate end-to-end management of a project to greater effect — from an analysis of the current environment and design of new solutions tailored to it to coordinating with the many service and technology providers needed to build broadband infrastructure and deliver the right Wi-Fi devices to a community.

Long-term managed services to maintain the network and provide virtual help desk support to end users (i.e., families) also may fall to a private partner to ensure a city’s or school district’s IT staff can focus on broader innovation and isn’t overwhelmed by day-to-day upkeep from thousands of users.

Solutions vary widely based on geographic nuances and the individual needs of each community. There are specific challenges, for example, in outfitting an underserved mountain community with a wireless connection simply due to the landscape.

In Tucson’s case, the city is equipping families with stand-alone wireless devices akin to hot spots that can simply be plugged into a nearby outlet to get online. Outfitting students with a Wi-Fi hot spot might work well in some places, while a different technology may be a better fit elsewhere.

Agile approaches like these can be applied anywhere, creating new access for rural and historically underserved communities where individuals lack funds to connect via commercial broadband or where it simply doesn’t exist.

Beyond Covid-19

Thinking long term, the benefits that come with these solutions will extend beyond the needs of the pandemic. When students return to school, hybrid afterschool programs can bring additional at-home tutoring, and schools can flex to online learning on snow days or allow individuals to attend class on occasions when they can’t be there in-person (e.g., family trips or cases of pink eye).

And in laying the groundwork for smart cities, everything hinges on connectivity. The very same broadband infrastructure remotely connecting students to their teachers can also be used to sharing information across a variety of different platforms and Internet of Things sensors and endpoints.

Through community wireless broadband, smart automobiles can connect to a city’s transportation network, sharing transit data as vehicles move across streets to better manage traffic lights. Real-time, communitywide information can alleviate congestion, shorten commute times, reduce emissions, help first-responders address emergencies quicker and address road repairs where they’re most needed.

The pandemic forced us to jump into innovation like this sooner and to realize some of the limitless possibilities of technology. Today, that means we must act swiftly to ensure no student is left behind due to a lack of reliable internet access. The steps we take today can help propel both our youth and our cities toward a more promising future.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Ken Lamneck

Quelle/Source: Forbes, 18.03.2021

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