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Buses Bring Wi-Fi So Kids Can Work At Home

When Liberty County, Georgia’s school system, began a one-to-one iPad initiative, they were making a positive impact in technology readiness for local school kids. After a year of the program, however, district officials determined that lack of Internet access at home was so prevalent, students ran the risk of falling behind. To fix the problem and allow kids to work online away from school, the school district is installing buses with Wi-Fi equipment and parking them throughout the community, creating “Homework Zones.”

Taking Internet Access To The Streets

In Liberty County, approximately 60 percent of students don’t have Internet access at home, which renders school issued iPads useless at home. Access is available in libraries, when there are extended school hours, and sometimes in other public locations, but using public Wi-Fi takes kids away from home; some kids are just too young to be out at night.

Pat Millen, Co-Founder and President of Eliminate the Digital Divide, spoke with Christopher for episode #218 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He described some of the burdens associated with finding Internet access away from home, just to complete your homework:

…[T]hink about the kid staying after school in the media center of the school until the very last second that the janitor needs to lock the door so that he can do his work. Then think about the same kid walking through all kinds of weather to get to the public library and hop on one of their computers.

Think about that same kid walking home in the dark through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area...Then think about this very same kid going through the motions of walking through the rain and the dark or the heat and the sun to get to the library that's two miles from his house. Then think of him taking measure of his life's prospects. "I can't get this work done. I'm not going to be able to pass this class. My family is so poor, shouldn't I just go ahead and drop out and go try to find a job?" 

As textbooks and applications become increasingly available only online, high concentration of low-income students have no way to complete homework at home. Nevertheless, without the opportunity to use those online tools, they fall behind.


Liberty County’s 24 “Homework Zones” will be concentrated in areas where the most low-income families live; the Wi-Fi enabled vehicles will stay parked from 2:30 - 11:30 p.m. and will allow students to access educational, school-district approved websites for classroom work.

“The more technology we integrated into the curriculum, the greater the need for connectivity at home,” said John Lyles, director of transportation for Liberty County School District. “We want to ensure no student is left behind because he or she doesn’t have the tools for success.”

It's Not Just About Homework

This summer, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) solicited comments on a proposed rule to require Internet access infrastructure in all public housing, which would begin to address the problem. There are, however, a number of low-income people who do not live in subsidized housing who should have access to high-quality Internet access. Elderly people need good Internet access to stay connected to loved ones, obtain connections to healthcare professionals, and stay engaged when mobility is a challenge, There are also many working age adults who simply cannot afford Internet access. While there are a few programs that provide minimum speeds for families of low-income school children, disabled adults or the working poor with no children can’t qualify for those programs and fall into a black hole. Affordable, high-quality Internet access for all low-income individuals needs to be a priority for all of us.

Bridgewater State University Connects to OpenCape

CapeNet, the local Internet service provider, on the OpenCape community network is expanding in southeastern Massachusetts. Bridgewater State University will connect to the OpenCape network for more bandwidth and more reliable Internet access.

Connectivity for Education

Bridgewater State University needed to ensure reliable connectivity for its students because many university courses have online, cloud-based, or video components. In fact, nearly every school CapeNet serves requests more bandwidth each year, reports the Bridgewater Wicked Local.

Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Bridgewater State University, Raymond V. Lefebvre, summed up the importance of connectivity for education institutions: 

“We pursued this additional Internet bandwidth in support of teaching, research, collaboration, learning and our residence students.”

More Reliable, Higher Bandwidth

The university already has connectivity through another provider, but wanted a second fiber connection to ensure redundancy. Connecting to OpenCape not only increases bandwidth, but also improves reliability. The OpenCape network traverses an entirely different route than the university’s other fiber connection. 

If the first fiber connection fails (i.e. if the cable gets damaged or equipment goes down), students’ and professors’ work will not be interrupted thanks to the connection to the OpenCape network. The second connection will keep information flowing. Alan Davis, CEO of CapeNet, explained:

“Because the OpenCape Network has virtually unlimited capacity and was designed to eliminate single points of failure, it is a valuable tool for institutions like Bridgewater State.”

According to Lefebvre, Bridgewater also appreciates CapeNet's status as a local provider dedicated to working with public entities in the region. In March, we reported on CapeNet's upgrades at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, also connected via the OpenCape fiber network.

More “Magic” in Westminster, Maryland

In April we wrote about the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC), an innovative new educational program in Westminster, Maryland, that gives local high school students opportunities to learn new technology skills through hands-on, real world projects. After the success of the program’s first project, the MAGIC program created a temporary wireless network for a second project -- this time for the city’s annual Westminster Flower and Jazz Festival held during Mother's Day weekend.

The MAGIC program is a collaborative effort between Ting Internet and Freedom Broadband, with Ting offering networking equipment and Freedom supervising the project. Ting is the private partner and operator of the City of Westminster’s open access municipal fiber network. Freedom Broadband is the leading provider of wireless Internet in the surrounding Carroll County region.

Festivals and Fiber

The temporary network gave festivalgoers access to extremely fast, high bandwidth wireless connections that connected to Westminster's fiber network. While strolling through the festival to see local jazz musicians and sampling from hundreds of vendors offering food, flowers, and crafts, attendees were be able to wirelessly connect their phones, tablets, and other devices to the city's fiber network during the one day event.

For the program’s first “Tech Incubation” project in April, the MAGIC program’s 15 students also created and operated a temporary wireless network that the City of Westminster used at its annual Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration. These first two projects are part of a continuous series in which the students have opportunities to further expand and refine their technology knowledge.

Leveraging Municipal Fiber for Economic and Cultural Benefits

Beyond the program’s educational merits, MAGIC is also a technology incubator which challenges talented local students to explore new types of innovation to benefit Westminster's economic development objectives. The program also helps local leaders find new ways to leverage Westminster’s municipal fiber network toward cultivating a robust technology culture in the region.

Interested in learning more about the MAGIC program? Contact Jason Stambaugh, a Board member for MAGIC and for the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, at 301-514-3551 or by email at Jason.m.stambaugh(at)

Dark Fiber For The Future In Caswell County Schools, NC

Caswell County School Board members recently voted to take a long-term approach to student connectivity in North Carolina.

Ten Years Was A Lifetime Ago

Earlier this month, the issue of Internet access for the schools came before the Board because a lease with the telecommunications company connecting school buildings is about to end. Since the inception of the 10-year agreement, computer and Internet use in schools has skyrocketed; Caswell County Schools now aim to have every child on a computer at school. The district is now served by satellite Internet access to school facilities and in order to supply the speed and reliability they need, the Chief Technology Officer David Useche recommended a fiber-optic network to the Board.

Lease vs. Own

Useche offered two possibilities: 1. lease a lit network, which costs less in the first years of the contract but will not belong to the school district; or 2. pay more for the first five years to have a dark fiber-optic network constructed. The dark fiber network infrastructure will belong to the school district. Caswell County will use E-Rate to help fund the construction of the network, which will result in an overall long-term savings of $35,000. Useche told the Board:

“If we look at the projections for the Lit network, in ten years after E-Rate our cost is going to be $214,255. With the Dark network the cost is $178,729. The difference is a savings of $35,000,” said Useche, who added that the district will use $751,000 in E-rate funds to help build the network. Useche said that the State of North Carolina is using E-rate funds to build networks in some of its rural areas. “If we didn’t have E-Rate funds we could not afford either of these options. We are lucky to have them to provide the services the schools need.”

The Board agreed with Useche’s recommendation to approve the dark fiber option. The agreement will include 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity for less than $100 per month more than 1 Gbps connectivity. “It’s not like we need ten gigabits right away but pretty soon we will need that much bandwidth,” said Useche.

Savings and Connectivity for Allegheny County Pennsylvania Schools

In Pennsylvania, many of Allegheny County’s schools are about to experience new and improved high-speed Internet access. This summer, school districts throughout Allegheny County will get better connectivity and save public dollars with a new Regional Wide Area Network. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Allegheny Intermediate Unit struck a deal with a new contractor to deliver better connectivity for less. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, provides services to 42 schools and five career and technical centers in the county surrounding Pittsburgh.

Paying Less and Getting More

The new network will generate major cost savings for the school districts. Jon Amelio, the Chief Technology Officer for Allegheny Intermediate Unit, estimates that they will pay 40 percent - 70 percent less than they do now. Currently, the school districts are paying $1,500 per month; with the new contract, the same speed and connectivity will only cost $550 per month. Many of the school districts are opting to increase their speeds, some by as much as 10-fold for only $895 per month.

Students and teachers will appreciate the faster speeds next school year. The connectivity affects nearly every level of education in the county from preschool teachers working with smartboards to high school students learning about 3-D printers. The new network will also better facilitate the Chinese language classes where Chinese graduate students teach 178 middle- and high-school students in 15 schools via video-conferencing. (For more information on schools and connectivity, check out the Institutional Networks page.)

How Is This Possible?

The structure of the new network enables these major cost savings. The school districts will buy connectivity in bulk under the new contract. This process consolidates the demand, driving down the price. That means better connectivity for less with the new Regional Wide Area Network; the old Regional Wide Area Network did not have this process.

Since 2008, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit has used an older Regional Wide Area Network for the 42 schools and five career/technical colleges. The high prices from that contractor, however, made the Allegheny Intermediate Unit rebid the contract. The new contractor will build a new and more reliable network, starting on July 1st. 

The Benefits of Ownership

The school districts will get better connectivity thanks to the savings from the new Regional Wide Area Network or as Chief Technology Officer Amelio explained:

 “It’s the beauty of bulk purchasing.”'

School districts that own infrastructure, rather than lease expensive lines from Internet service providers, have the flexibility to engage in this type of cost sharing techniques.

Over time, the cost per Megabit for Internet access has decreased; schools with their own infrastructure can capitalize on the reduction to negotiate better contracts to cut down on telecommunications costs. They have better control over their budgets, control their network, and can plan for the future. When they collaborate, they can get even better rates and use the savings for improved educational opportunities.

There's "MAGIC" In Westminster

It was just last year when the City Council in Westminster, Maryland voted to begin a partnership with private ISP company Ting Internet. Ting now delivers high quality Internet access via the citywide, publicly owned fiber network.

A new collaborative initiative, facilitated in part by the still expanding Westminster Fiber Network, is bringing new cultural opportunities and economic benefits to city residents. “Tech Incubation” aims to give local students hands-on experience exploring their interests in technology.

Incubating Talent, Innovation

For the first project within the Tech Incubation initiative, 15 students from local high schools spent several weeks learning to create and operate an actual temporary wireless network. The city then used the network for its annual Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration in March, providing attendees of the celebration with unprecedented levels of bandwidth and broadband speeds.

The Tech Incubation Initiative is the product of a collaboration between the City of Westminster, the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC), Ting Internet, and the Westminster-based company Freedom Broadband. Freedom Broadband supervised the project and provided the wireless equipment necessary to build the network; Ting and the City of Westminster provided the necessary Gigabit backhaul over the Westminster Fiber Network.

More Opportunities Ahead

This project is the first in a series of planned, ongoing projects to teach students technology skills and encourage a culture of innovation. MAGIC is developing the Tech Incubation program in response to requests by students in Westminster for more opportunities to learn about technology.

Westminster’s City Council President Dr. Robert Wack described the value of the Tech Incubation initiative to community:

“For the students, it’s mostly fun, but I’m sure some of them have specific goals for education and certainly the more tech savvy young people we have in this community, the better that is for our local economy.”

New Report on Digital Inclusion from Sesame Workshop

A recent report by Victoria Rideout and Vikki S. Katz from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop delves into detail on the experiences of lower income families and Internet access. The report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” points to the promises of digital inclusion for educational opportunities, but also to the current inequalities in Internet access. 

The researchers highlight several key findings from the study in an effort to inform policymakers of the root causes, and effects, of these inequalities on lower-income families. They include issues of race (families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected), of access (mobile-only and inconsistent connectivity), and of affordability (despite the existence of discounted programs).

Discounted Programs Not Working

We’ve written several times about the failings of the large corporate providers’ discounted programs for Internet access. Over the past few years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been a prime example. We reported on the Consumerist article that highlighted how the program benefits Comcast more than lower-income families. In 2013, our Lisa Gonzalez shared her own family’s experience with the program. 

Rideout and Katz’s report again show the real impact of these programs’ failures. Only 5% of those surveyed had ever signed up for the programs although many met the eligibility requirements. Even those that did receive the service sometimes found that it could not meet their needs. After all, the program only provides up to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speeds. A parent of a seventh grader in Colorado explained to the researchers (page 11): 

I had (Internet Essentials) because (my children) had assignments that they needed the computer for... I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it.

A Better Solution: Community

The report from Rideout and Katz at the Sesame Workshop found that the largest barrier for Internet access in lower-income households is financial. The researchers detail the many ways that better Internet access would provide better education opportunities for lower-income children, and the survey shows that parents know this too.

So, why haven’t these discounted programs been effective in bridging the digital divide? The programs aren’t readily available. Enrollment is confusing. And, more importantly, people outside the community run these programs - people who don’t know what the community needs. 

Chattanooga’s municipal network offers a better solution. Chattanooga took the best aspects of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and combined them with a deep understanding of community needs. An effective policy for providing affordable Internet access must be rooted in the community.

MN Coop to Rural Schools: Have A Gig, No Extra Charge

Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Communications' is bringing better connectivity to homes and businesses across northern rural Minnesota via fiber. The cooperative is also helping local school districts save precious dollars while obtaining the Internet access kids need for a 21st century education.

The cooperative recently announced it is now serving all schools in the GigaZone, the area served by its fiber network, and every school can upgrade to gigabit Internet services at no extra charge.

From the announcement:

"The GigaZone will provide the school districts Gigabit Internet speeds throughout the school day so educators and students alike can use the Internet faster and more efficiently. This upgrade is being provided at no extra charge so districts can stay within their budget and prepare their students for the future and the new technologies it will bring," said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications IT & Development Manager.

Recent studies reveal that rural schools grapple with high rates for Internet access, often because there is only one provider who takes advantage of their solo position. Paul Bunyan Communications is one of the many telecommunications cooperatives that serve rural regions that are owned by the people they serve. Like municipal networks, cooperatives typically display a concern for the community rather than maximizing profit.

Paul Bunyan is continuing to expand its current GigaZone coverage area. The coop now serves over 14,000 locations in rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, and portions of Bemidji. The goal is to cover the 5,000 square mile service area now served by the cooperative.

Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.

This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.

Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.

To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.

Download it here, share it, pass it on.

Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Sale of OptiNet: BVU Caught Between Virginia's Rock And A Hard Place

For more than a decade, the people of Bristol, Virginia have enjoyed what most of us can only dream about - fast affordable, reliable, connectivity.  In recent days, we learned that Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority (BVU) has entered into a deal to sell its OptiNet triple-play fiber network to a private provider. The deal is contingent on approval by several entities.

As we dig deeper into the situation, we understand that troubles in southwestern Virginia and Bristol have led to this decision. Nevertheless, we urge the Bristol community to weigh the long-term consequences before they sacrifice OptiNet. Once you give up control, you won’t get it back.

"...A Few Bad Apples..."

If the people of Bristol surrender this valuable public asset to the private market, they run the risk of undoing 15 years of great work. None of this is a commentary on the private provider, Sunset Digital Communications, which may be a wonderful company. The problem is that Sunset will be making the decisions in the future, not the community. 

OptiNet has helped the community retain and create jobs, attracting and retaining more than 1,220 well-paying positions from Northrup Grumman, CGI, DirecTV, and Alpha Natural Resources. Businesses have cut Internet access and telecommunications costs. Officials estimate around $50 million in new private investment and $36 million in new annual payroll have come to the community since the development of OptiNet. The network allowed public schools to drastically reduce telecommunications expenses and introduce gigabit capacity long before such speeds were the goal among educators.

Schools and local government saved approximately $1 million from 2003 - 2008. Subscribers have saved considerably as well, which explains OptiNet's high take rate of over 70 percent. Incumbent telephone provider Sprint (now CenturyLink) charged phone rates 25 percent higher than OptiNet in 2003. The benefits are too numerous to mention in one short story.

However, BVU is emerging from a dark period marked by corrupt management. This sad reality actually makes its considerable achievements all the more remarkable. Last summer, several officials from BVU's OptiNet utility were indicted and found guilty of a number of federal charges including falsifying invoices, taking kickbacks, and misusing funds all for personal gain. Four people were fined and sentenced to prison. One other official is still being tried for her involvement in misuse of funds and tax offenses.

When this small number of officials violated the trust in Bristol that accompanies a locally managed utility, their actions negatively impacted the entire community. The actions of a few bad apples may have put the entire barrel at risk.

An Unsolicited Offer


A few months later, Sunset Digital Communications approached BVU with an offer to purchase OptiNet. Sunset had its financing in place prior to making the offer.

Sunset worked with the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission on its 2001 Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project in Lee and Wise Counties in southern Virginia and Tennessee.

The company, based in Duffield, Virginia, serves 80,0000 residents and businesses. They also provide services to anchor institutions, and other Internet service providers. Sunset wants to use the OptiNet infrastructure to start an expansion into rural areas. In a recent Herald Courier article, Sunset President and CEO Paul Elswick described the relationship between OptiNet and Sunset as "friendly competitors."

Virginia Doesn’t Care About Rural People

BVU has been effectively prevented from expanding into nearby rural communities by Virginia law, which limits which business models BVU can use despite an utter lack of interest from existing providers improving their services in that region. 

BVU Authority Board Chair Jim Clifton told WCYB:

"We have peaked in our ability to compete, and again, if we can't get grants, and even with the grants, we can only go into certain areas. We can only go into a 75 mile radius of our footprint," Clifton said. He said as a public utility, they have reached the peak for providing those types of services.

Bristol's neighbors want OptiNet because of the great things it has accomplished for Bristol but state legislators will not allow the city to share the wealth. The pressure to expand through privatization is testament to OptiNet's success in a harsh, anti-muni environment.

In Steps Richmond

Rather than allowing BVU to bring its high capacity connections to those who desperately want it, legislators are using the actions of a few corrupt officials to further harm one of the few sources of economic growth in southwest Virginia.

While Sunset was pursuing BVU, State Senator Bill Carrico (R-Galax) was preparing a bill the Bristol Herald Courier described as a "wrecking ball for a job better suited to a hammer." The bill, a knee jerk reaction to the federal indictments, would reduce the size of the BVU authority and effectively transfer broad decision-making to state leadership by appointment. The editorial board described it as a way for the state to revoke local authority from Bristol for more than just OptiNet. From the Herald:

At the same time, Carrico wants to reduce to just two board members the representation from Bristol, Virginia, where the customer base represents 46 percent of OptiNet, 86 percent of wastewater, 98 percent of water, and 53 percent of electricity service business. 

We believe stronger oversight is required — and new blood on the board is essential — but not necessarily appointed from the governor’s office.

The City Council also opposed the bill but managed to get an amendment that allowed more Bristol representation on any new Board. Those members would only vote on water and sewer issures. SB 329 has passed through the Committee on Local Governments and now awaits a vote by the full body. It is not clear what will become of the bill if the sale of OptiNet is finalized.


A Tempting Offer But At What Price?

Sunset has offered $50 million to purchase OptiNet, which now carries approximately $24.4 million in long-term debt, reports the Herald Courier. A portion of that includes interdepartmental loans from the electric division to OptiNet. The electric system, water and sewer systems carry about $20.9 million combined, the bulk of which belongs to the electric system. BVU CEO Dan Bowman told the Herald Courier that the sale of OptiNet "would enable BVU to pay off all its $48 million in long-term indebtedness in all four divisions." There is some debate about whether or not this is possible, according to the agreement between the city and the BVU Authority.

The idea of becoming debt free is intrinsically appealing, but at what cost? BVU generates the necessary revenues to service its debt. Should Sunset decide to sell to one of the big corporate providers like Comcast, subscribers will be subject to the same price hikes and sub-par customer service like the rest of us. The purchase agreement has not been made public yet, but unless Sunset agrees to retain ownership or BVU is allowed a right of first refusal if Sunset decides to sell OptiNet, the risk is real.

Moving Along

On Tuesday, the Bristol City Council quickly approved a 2009 agreement between the city and BVU to clean up loose ends so the purchase can move forward. The agreement ensures that after debts are paid, half of all proceeds from a sale of OptiNet will go to the city. The City Council seems poised to approve the purchase, which must also be approved by the Cumberland Plateau Company (CPC), U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, National Telecom and Information Administration and Virginia Tobacco Commission. 

CPC is part of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission, an entity established by the state legislature to improve economic development. CPC has the right of first refusal to purchase OptiNet because it was a partner in its deployment and its infrastructure is located in the CPC service area. If CPC and the other entities approve the transaction, the sale is expected to be finalized in May or June.

Rocks Carefully Placed For Maximum Effect

The deal is not over but momentum is moving toward the sale. No one can deny that BVU is under intense amount of pressure from several fronts. Virginia legislated a hostile environment that pushed OptiNet to privatize if it wanted to continue expanding to meet the needs of neighbors. The only interests served by this policy have been the big cable and telephone companies that maintain lobbyists in Richmond so they can pay less attention to the rest of the state.

When legislators are too cozy with big corporate Internet access providers, the only choice for expansion may be privatization. If the Virginia State Legislators were considering their constituents first, they would do what it takes to grow more networks like OptiNet. In other words, remove all barriers in the form of onerous requirements that limit expansion and discourage public investment in Internet networks.

The actions of a few corrupt BVU officials have played right into the hands of those that want to limit local Internet choice.