Internet access is not a requirement for distance learning, but we have received many questions about how to adapt to limited connectivity. And while connectivity may be a given for some, rural areas do not always have simple or straightforward pathways for connecting to the internet. Here, we will describe what connectivity technologies are available, share examples of community-led solutions, and offer a range of suggestions — from simple to systematic — for increasing your connectivity.
What is “connectivity”?
The Rural Tech Project defines connectivity as the ability for computers, mobile devices, and local area networks to connect to the internet. The most common options for accessing the internet are fiber optic, cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), satellite broadband, fixed wireless broadband, and mobile wireless broadband.
Fiber optic broadband uses thin tubes of glass or plastic to transfer data as light signals. Cable broadband is accessed through the same infrastructure as cable television — usually a modem connection through copper wire. DSL services use connections between a modem and a phone line. Satellite broadband uses a small satellite dish installed on a building that communicates with a satellite in orbit to provide an internet connection; this requires an unobstructed view of the sky. Fixed wireless broadband is maintained through a connection device installed in your school or home, which connects to a larger network maintained by an internet service provider. Mobile wireless broadband provides connection through radio waves from cellular towers.
Connectivity options and access vary from place to place. To see if your location has access to broadband, you can use this FCC map. However, the map is not always accurate to the “last mile” of service delivery. You will need to check in with the listed provider to make sure their equipment can cover your exact address.
Connection case studies
The following are examples of rural communities who created connectivity options through two different methods. One was driven by the school district, and the other by the community at large.
Installing hotspots: How Lindsay, California, brought WiFi to students’ homes
Lindsay Unified School District, in central California, began its City WiFi project in 2014. At the time, fewer than half of Lindsay’s students had internet access, and students would often sit outside the school building late into the evening to finish their homework. The district produced a request for proposals, asking private partners and the local government to come up with solutions for deploying the internet to all learners. They collected proposals, engaged community stakeholders, and vetted the plans for over a year before selecting a plan. In 2015, the district began installing internet receivers on residential properties and apartment complexes; it also constructed towers in city parks and at a popular field house with the support of the community at large. Installation took about a year, and in conjunction with in-home routers, the system now provides community access for Lindsay learners to use school equipment (such as laptops and iPads) at home. The school district gave MiFi devices to students who live farther from the center of town to create wireless hotspots. According to the district, the program cost an estimated $300,000 to 400,000, and maintaining it requires about $75,000 a year.
Lindsay has continued to scale up its City WiFi system with the goal of ensuring all 4,300 students can access to the internet. Outside of the City WiFi project, which is free for all Lindsay students, ViaSat is the only local provider that currently covers all of Lindsay; ViaSat charges around $50 a month.
Partnering with a telecomm: How Letcher County, Kentucky, built new infrastructure
Letcher County, Kentucky, hoped to create a fixed wireless transmitter solution for their community. In 2017, residents only had access to very slow satellite internet, which was vulnerable to storms, wind, and other weather changes, and 600 households weren’t served by any internet provider at all. Only one-fifth of Letcher County households had connection speeds of 10 Mbps per second download and 1 Mbps upload, placing it in the bottom 10% of the nation in broadband infrastructure.
After collaborating with several internet service providers, the Letcher County Broadband Board learned that installing fiber would cost $65,000 a mile; this infeasible cost led the board to search for alternative solutions. Large internet service providers resisted committing to the last mile of service because of the high infrastructure costs and lack of revenue to recover those costs, but the board continued talks with telecommunications companies. The board also considered Kentucky Wired, a state-funded internet program, as an alternative. However, Kentucky Wired was also unable to meet local needs due to multiple delays to expansion plans.
Ultimately, Thacker-Grigsby Telephone (TGT), a regional telecommunications provider, came through with a solution. TGT bought the local cable and fiber system in 2019 and is working with the board to ensure that the county is covered. To date, 100% of Letcher County can access the internet — at various speeds — through TGT’s network.
What you can do to enhance your connectivity
You don’t have to solve all your connectivity problems right now, but you can start planning. By thinking through the questions in steps 1 and 2 below, you’ll get more out of the resources in step 3. Consider this a conversation starter that will help your community take action.
Step 1: What do you need?
- Program needs: What kind of program are you thinking of building and running? What are the connectivity requirements? Will students and educators need access to high speed internet constantly or intermittently in order to access all aspects of the program? Will they need the internet at school, at home, or both?
- Devices: What kind of devices will students and educators need?
- Timing: What needs to be done in the short term (for instance, before the Rural Tech Project submission deadline), and what steps can you begin to take toward a long-term project?
- Budget: What is your budget? Will that budget be stable or fluctuate over time? If your plans have high expenses, how will you meet those costs?
Step 2: Who should be involved?
- Stakeholders: Who are the key stakeholders in your school and community who may be interested in increasing connectivity? How can you get in contact with those people or organizations?
- ISPs: How can you work with internet service providers? If you are exploring different cost options, organizations like EveryoneOn and AllConnect can help you connect with ISPs that fit different needs and budgets.
Step 3: How will you proceed?
- Connection at school: E-rate is a government program that “provides discounts of up to 90% to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access.” Who in your district manages the E-rate process? What can they tell you about connectivity options?
- Connection at home: If you are considering broadband options outside of school locations, you can find and compare services at BroadbandNow.
- Connection anywhere: If mobile is your best or only option, think about MiFi devices (wireless routers that act as WiFi hotspots) that can be purchased through a mobile service provider. For example, T-Mobile recently launched Project 10Million, which “gives eligible households 100GB of data per year and a free mobile hotspot for five years … Participating school districts [also] have the option to apply the value of the free program, up to $500/year per student [toward] additional data plans” based on students’ needs.
Rural Tech Project entrants don’t have to implement connectivity solutions prior to submitting a proposal, but may want to do some research on community needs, estimate how long the project may take, and make a budget and a rollout plan. The Rural Tech Project also plans to offer additional support: All entrants will be invited to webinar training sessions on enhancing rural distance learning, rural broadband, and digital learning tools. And remember: No matter how good your plan is, or how fast your service might become, outages happen. It makes sense to design programs for low connectivity while working toward consistent high-speed access. Take the time to involve team and community members who can help you better understand connectivity needs and possible solutions.