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In remote Alaska, broadband for all remains a dream. So a school district got creative

A district in the Aleutian Islands has built a wide area mesh network to enable virtual learning -- skirting the need for internet access in students' homes.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

The Aleutian Islands off Alaska have limited internet connectivity.

Getty Images

About as far west as you can go in the US before hitting Russia lies the string of Aleutian Islands. It's where the Discovery Channel's The Deadliest Catch is filmed and where most fish destined for restaurants in the continental US gets processed. 

A tiny school system in the region, the Aleutians East Borough School District, educates 230 students across four schools. About 85% of the kids are Alaska Native. Traveling between the four schools requires flights on twin-engine planes or, in one case, a flight followed by a helicopter ride. The towns -- Sand Point, King Cove, False Pass and Akutan -- have stunning views and plenty of seafood, an industry that employs most of the residents. 

What the Aleutians East Borough School District doesn't have is COVID-19. No one in the four towns or the large Trident Seafood fish-processing plant has contracted the novel coronavirus. Fewer than 5,000 people have been infected in all of Alaska. But that doesn't mean the district isn't preparing for quarantines. When the Spanish Flu swept through Alaska a century ago, it devastated the population of some villages. One out of every 20 Alaskans died between 1918 and 1919. The state can't let that happen again. 

Locating local internet providers

Reliable internet service would help the islands keep coronavirus at bay by allowing people to communicate and learn at safe, social distances. But the few home internet connections that exist in the area are accessed through satellite delivery, which leads to delays and stutters. Cell service, even in the more urban areas, can drop 10 times a day, estimates school district Superintendent Patrick Mayer. And service is pricey.  

"There's very, very limited access to the internet out here," Mayer said. "Most families just don't have it here. It's tremendously expensive." 

Locating local internet providers

To get around that, the school district has gotten creative. It's building its own digital content delivery system that doesn't need internet access. The school district will be able to beam signals to students' homes, sort of like setting up a TV station and equipping homes to tune in over an antenna.   

The US has wrestled with a digital divide for decades, but the pandemic has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations: students from poorer urban areas and remote rural districts. People of color, including people who identify as Alaska Natives, are disproportionately hurt. The worry is that the disconnected students, many who are already disadvantaged, will fall even further behind their more affluent peers.

An estimated 18 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a Federal Communications Commission tally released in April. Experts say the official figures are almost certainly lower than reality because of faulty maps. About 16.9 million children don't have the home internet access necessary to support online learning during the pandemic, according to a joint study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS. Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native households are even less likely to have adequate connectivity, with one out of three lacking access at home, that study found. 

Alaska Homework Gap Digital Divide

The Aleutians East Borough School District has big enough classrooms -- and a small enough number of students -- that it can socially distance. But it's also preparing for the possibility of the school getting shut down during the pandemic.

Patrick Mayer/Aleutians East Borough School District

Many of those kids won't have the connectivity that's needed to attend virtual class, even as the coronavirus pandemic keeps schools closed for in-person study. In the past, this so-called homework gap led students to stay late at school to finish their assignments or to study in libraries and restaurants with Wi-Fi connections. During the pandemic, none of those is an option. Nearly six months after the first schools closed because of COVID-19, there's still no comprehensive solution to get everyone online. 

"If you don't have an adequate internet connection, you're locked out of the virtual classroom," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who coined the term homework gap well before the pandemic, said in an interview. "When it comes to education, closing the homework gap might not seem like a big thing, but it has huge impacts on our nation's students."

Rural struggles

Building out high-speed internet networks is prohibitively expensive when there's only one customer every mile or so. In many rural areas that have some sort of connection, there are often just one or two internet providers, and service is pricey and spotty. Hospitals, schools and other critical groups have long lacked fast-enough internet to function, and it's now heavily impacting students who will be learning from home. 

In a place like Alaska, building out broadband is daunting. The Aleutians East Borough School District spreads across 15,000 square miles, of which only 7,000 square miles are land. (For comparison, New Jersey's land also covers around 7,000 square miles.)

"There's always talk about dropping a fiber line, but I'm not expecting that next week," Mayer, the superintendent, said.

Alaska Homework Gap Digital Divide
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Alaska Homework Gap Digital Divide

The Aleutians East Borough School District encompasses four towns and about 230 students. To get from school to school requires flights and, in the case of Akutan (pictured here), a flight followed by a helicopter ride. 

Aleutians East Borough School District

Across Alaska, about 31% of students don't have adequate high-speed internet connections at home and about 19% don't have devices, according to a study by nonprofit Common Sense Media.

The school district itself has 25mbps broadband, thanks to a federal assistance program called E-Rate and a satellite internet provider, and all its students have their own Chromebooks. E-Rate, which is run by the FCC, provides schools and libraries with internet service that's discounted by 20% to 90%, depending on the poverty level of the area. 

When the pandemic started, the Aleutians school district, like many other districts around the US, asked for a waiver to use its E-Rate-supported internet in the broader community. The FCC said no.

In the spring, the school district delivered paper assignments to students, along with free lunches. But administrators and teachers knew that relying on paper assignments for a full school year wasn't sustainable. Steps taken by other school districts, like setting up Wi-Fi-connected parks, weren't realistic for Alaska with its long, cold winters. And distributing personal hotspots to all students was too expensive.

"This has just been a decades-long problem that now has been elevated to No. 1," Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on connectivity at the Brookings Institution, said. "We still haven't figured it out, and it's hurting kids."

Because tapping into its E-Rate discounts wasn't an option, the Aleutians school district instead set to work building its own wide area mesh network using unlicensed radio frequencies. It set up large beaming radio towers in the town and installed a series of small, wireless access points on the top of locals' homes. 

All of the content is housed on local school district servers, and it's beamed to the different access point around the district. So far, school district has wired two towns. The remaining two will follow soon. 

"This is kind of the freebie way to do this that doesn't involve the internet," Mayer said. "When you get into the internet and E-Rate, you run into all kinds of landmines."

A national plan?

There have been some efforts to extend the E-Rate system to students' homes now that many schools around the country are having virtual-only classes this fall. The FCC's Rosenworcel has pushed for schools to be allowed to use E-Rate funding to distribute hotspots to students with unreliable home internet. 

"We should be using every tool we have right now to solve the homework gap," she said. Since E-Rate is a program schools know well, they would be able to easily navigate the system to get more funding. And because the program is already in place, funding could be distributed quickly.

Alaska Homework Gap Digital Divide
Enlarge Image
Alaska Homework Gap Digital Divide

The Aleutians East Borough School District in Alaska has set up radio towers to beam lessons to students in their homes. 

Aleutians East Borough School District

"There's so much of this crisis we can't fix," Rosenworcel  said. "But the homework gap is something we can solve."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the rest of the commission have resisted expanding E-Rate, saying the program can't be used for distributing hotspots or broadening connectivity to students' homes.

"Current law specifically allows E-Rate funding only for 'classrooms,' not student homes," the FCC said in a statement. "That's precisely why since March, Chairman Pai has repeatedly called on Congress to establish and fund a Remote Learning Initiative so that more students can get connected and stay online."

The Aleutians school district's program costs students nothing. The district is funding the purchase of the wireless access points and other technology. Mayer estimates that equipment, travel to install the radios and other expenses have totaled under $20,000 -- likely far less than it would cost to hook every home up to satellite internet for the school year.

Members of the community will also be able to register for "learner accounts" to access the educational content.

While the school district is offering in-person, socially distanced school for the first week of classes, it will be able to use open source software like the BigBlueButton conferencing system to broadcast lessons from teachers to their students' Chromebooks if the area goes into lockdown.

Students will be able to complete their homework and take tests and quizzes, much like they would in person. 

"Using BigBlueButton, [an instructor] could teach her class a lesson, face-to-face, just like Zoom, with a whiteboard in the background," Mayer said. 

And it would all work without the students getting internet access at home. 

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