White space may bridge digital divide

A one-two punch from geography and economic conditions all too frequently put rural students on the wrong site of the digital divide. I’ve written before about the difficulties students in my rural corner of New York State would have getting on the Internet if they don’t have an ISP at home.

A broadband technology is emerging that may offer some hope.

In December the Federal Communications Commission approved technology that allows Internet signals to be carried wirelessly in what is called white space, the  spectrum between television stations. The FCC approval takes effect Jan. 26.

Signals in this band travel better than WiFi because the signal isn’t impeded by physical structures such as buildings, trees, or mountains.

Thanks to the FCC decision, the medium will be accessible to small networking firms as well as to unlicensed and experimental users.

The white space signal must originate from fiber optic lines serving cell towers. Providers would have to reach agreement with the local cell carrier for use of the fiber optic cables to bring the signal into an area before the providers could deliver the signal to the customer’s location. (See the diagram at Mashable.com)

The FCC says unleasing the white spaces spectrum will provide a massive economic boost to businesses and result in new jobs being created.

One of the first locations to carry signals in white space is to be Thurman in the Adirondack Park, where Chestertown-based Rainmaker Network Service, LLC plans to test the technology later this year.

Interest in the new technology is high. Officials from other rural municipalities turned up in Thurman Jan. 25 to learn about the prospects and costs of the program..

Having Internet service available wouldn’t necessarily make it affordable for students in economically depressed rural areas, but it would at least remove one of the multiple barriers to rural student ‘net access.

Photo credit: House at the Hill uploaded by  iprole

Education equity in Web 2.0 era

As education leaders were debating policies for empowering Web 2.0 schools earlier this month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center released its 2011 report  looking at the educational, social, economic, and physical well-being of America’s children on state-by-state as well as a national basis.

The data should be disturbing to anyone who is involved in education:

  • 20% of children in the US live in poverty.
  • 31% of children in the US live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment.
  • 34% of children in the US live in single-parent families.

What do those figures mean for schools? They mean that:

  • There are kids who will not be able to bring their PDs to school regardless of the school policy on PDs for the simple reason their families cannot afford personal devices such as laptops, Blackberries and iPads.
  • There are kids for whom the question of sending their teacher a friend request will not arise because they have no place to access Facebook. Public internet access is not as widely available as many people seem to think.
  • There are parents who won’t use the school’s website to access their children’s homework assignments because they don’t have a computer to use even if they know how to use a computer.

If learning is not confined to physical spaces like schools, perhaps instead of putting all our energies into discussing technology policies to empower Web 2.0 schools, we ought to put some energy into thinking about how to provide equitable access to education resources beyond the confines of schools.