Internet network set to beam into Md.’s rural areas won’t help students this fall

Officials don’t have a clear picture of exactly which students live in unserved areas, nor where they are located. For now, the state has prioritized building the network around rural communities over population-dense locales such as Baltimore.

School systems will have to make do with a patchwork of solutions to help students among the estimated 324,000 rural Marylanders who lack access to high-speed Internet, according to a 2019 report from a state task force.

“It’s like they say, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” said Scott Boone, IT director for Kent County, one of the first regions slated for the new network. “When’s the next-best time? Right now. This may not be our last pandemic.”

Maryland’s wireless education network echoes a federal program that set aside bandwidth exclusively for education in the 1960s. At the time, institutions didn’t know how to use it — and the federal government is now aiming to auction off the remaining bandwidth to commercial Internet service providers and mobile phone companies.

The state has earmarked $15 million in coronavirus pandemic relief funds from the federal Cares Act and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds.

Radio frequencies are often considered preferable for bringing broadband Internet to remote, rural areas. That’s because the network can be built using existing utility poles, water towers and other tall structures.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created the state’s Office of Rural Broadband in 2017 to work with county governments and private companies to bring service to those without broadband Internet. Kenrick Gordon, director of the office, said the state has opted to build the wireless education network on a spectrum of radio referred to as the 3.5 gigahertz band.

Radio waves, or spectrum, can be imagined as strings in a piano. Each “string,” or section of spectrum, may produce slightly stronger or weaker signals that are able to reach varying distances. If too many carriers try to send data across the same section of spectrum, or “piano string,” interference can occur and delivery speeds can slow dramatically. That’s one of the reasons cellphone signals can falter in large crowds.

Gordon chose the 3.5 GHz band for the wireless education network because it can reach distances up to six miles and deliver data at relatively high speeds. And the state would not need to secure a license from the Federal Communications Commission to use it, meaning that installation can occur quickly.

However, using unlicensed spectrum also means there’s a slightly higher risk of interference from commercial Internet and cellphone service providers, and in some cases branches of the military. To conserve the amount of bandwidth available to students, the network will not be available to other individuals in a child’s household, Gordon said.

The state is negotiating with an unnamed Maryland-based nonprofit to build, own and operate the network, he said. The state intends to commission a feasibility study by mid-October to determine where students without Internet access are located and what it will take to deliver the network to them, Gordon said.

The director hopes for the network to be fully operational across the state by August 2021.

While the funding for the network flows through the Maryland Department of Education, the project is being championed by an office focused solely on rural broadband needs. As a result, it’s unclear whether students in Baltimore — where high-speed Internet is often unaffordable or not available — will be able to access the network.

“We’re focused on unserved rural students to start with because they really don’t have any other option,” Gordon said. “As the network gets built, as funding becomes available, the goal would be also to expand it into some more urban areas to help with the digital divide in urban areas.”

Funding for the wireless network includes $5 million earmarked for “urban” areas, which Gordon said is defined as a location in which an Internet service provider has infrastructure and customers — not necessarily a region with high population densities like Baltimore.

In Baltimore, 96,000 households — more than 40 percent — lack broadband access, a recent Abell Foundation report found, citing census data.

While the state works to set up the network, the Maryland Department of Education has left school systems to decide how best to deliver educational materials this fall. And the Office of Rural Broadband has issued stopgap grants to school systems to fund interim solutions for their students, Gordon said.

Multiple school systems have set up Internet signals in school parking lots or on buses that can be driven into neighborhoods where children lack broadband access. Somerset County schools, for example, are looking to provide students with a week’s worth of lesson plans that can be downloaded and taken home, Gordon said.

Some school systems have used Cares Act funds to purchase Internet hotspots for their students. However, hotspots can function only if there are cellphone towers nearby to carry the signal, Gordon said.

While some rural students are certain to take home hotspots that won’t be able to work, the devices will still help Gordon’s office determine where the children who lack Internet and cellphone service live. Those are areas Maryland’s new wireless network needs to prioritize, Gordon said.

The state’s plan to build a wireless education network is fairly cutting-edge, said Kent County’s Boone, who serves on the board of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for the expansion of such infrastructure.

Recently, coalition officials have called on the FCC to restore an obscure program called the Educational Broadband Service, which has origins dating to the Kennedy administration.

The broadband service originally set aside a portion of the 2.5 GHz spectrum — another “piano string” — to be used exclusively for educational purposes. The frequencies required an FCC license to use, meaning there was significantly less radio traffic or interference.

Maryland’s wireless education network is modeled somewhat on that program. The Educational Broadband Service spectrum is capable of reaching farther than the 3.5 GHz spectrum but at slower speeds, Gordon said.

However, the FCC stripped the educational requirement in 2019 from the 2.5 GHz spectrum — which is now considered prime radio-wave real estate for commercial Internet service providers and mobile phone companies developing the next generation of networks. The FCC intends to auction off the remaining licenses for that spectrum on the open market.

Advocates, including those with the coalition, are now calling on the FCC to reverse its decision and give educational entities priority in the auction. The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed circumstances, they argue. Advocates point to Northern Michigan University, one of the few educational entities in the country to use that spectrum to provide reliable broadband in the state’s Upper Peninsula.

In the meantime, Boone said, he has applied for a special waiver from the FCC that would allow Kent County to use the coveted 2.5 GHz band.

Gordon doesn’t have much faith that the FCC will change direction.

“We obviously would support trying to get that back,” Gordon said. “If we were given the opportunity, I think, yes, the state would be in favor of that 2.5 [GHz band] being brought back to educational use.”

Furthermore, Gordon said, Maryland students cannot wait for the FCC to reverse course. Children need a reliable Internet connection immediately, and the 3.5 GHz band is available.

Still, he worries that the cost of the network could creep up depending on geographic factors. And the state probably won’t know how much the project will cost or how well it will function until equipment is installed.

“I can say with some certainty that we won’t hit 100 percent of the students,” Gordon said.

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