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This article was contributed by Mitrankur (Mit) Majumdar, senior vice president and regional head of services, Americas at Infosys.

Free public education is a right guaranteed by the constitution of the United States of America, but the pandemic has shown that without equitable Internet access, that right remains a pipe dream for many students. The Internet has proved to be today’s equivalent of text books, without which, learning is impossible.

Even before the pandemic, there was a growing ‘homework gap’ due to the rising trend of teachers assigning homework that required Internet access. In 2018, nearly 17 million children in America had no access to high-speed Internet, and over 7 million did not have computers at home, according to an analysis of census data. During the pandemic, nearly a third (16 million) of the 50 million K-12 public school students didn’t have adequate Internet access, and a further nine million lacked both devices and the Internet.

The digital divide issue impacts a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latinx and Native American students, worsening the vicious cycle of underprivilege. Further, 400,000 K–12 public school teachers (10%) are also victims of the digital divide, which translates to all their students – irrespective of ethnic or economic background – being impacted by 

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Learning limitations: network access for students

Schools and students have had to come up with temporary solutions on their own. WiFi hotspots in school parking lots, public libraries, and restaurants have turned into virtual classrooms. Some schools went as far as parking school buses equipped with WiFi hot spots, in underserved neighborhoods. While these novel measures can be seen as a desperate response to the mitigating circumstances, they are in no way sustainable or acceptable solutions to bridge the digital divide.

Educators must focus on sustainable, long-term solutions to overcome this by investing in the right technology for last mile connectivity, ensuring 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds recommended by the Federal Communications Commission for digital learning. There are several paths available in closing the last mile Internet connectivity gap that exists. As a starting point, education boards can look to technology partners to design and build alternative solutions to provide economically viable internet connectivity, supported by the existing funding mechanisms.

For students without access to commercially available wired, or, wireless broadband service, alternative technologies such as Wireless Broadband-enabled Mesh Network could be a starting point. These types of networks support fixed wireless connectivity and Wi-Fi access points or a Private LTE/5G network to cover targeted geographic areas. They are designed to address specific locations, with the supplementary advantage that other students within the targeted areas can potentially subscribe to these services as well. Where commercial broadband connectivity isn’t feasible, other possible network options based on Infrastructure availability, apart from the school locations, and nearby fiber path availability (crucial for deploying WFMN and Private LTE nodes) should be considered.

Leveraging the 60GHz unlicensed spectrum and equipment using Terragraph software and certified Distribution and Client Nodes, “wireless fiber” mesh networks can be tailored for specific areas where students lack commercially available wired or wireless broadband service. This type of network can take advantage of existing fiber connectivity to serve as points of presence for Internet connection, as well as, minimize many of the Right of Way hurdles that providers would encounter by laying fiber to a targeted area.

Deploying private LTE networks for virtual learning on shared spectrum connectivity can provide students and teachers access to a reliable network from their homes, creating a better and more seamless learning experience. These solutions could finally address the digital divide that currently costs the United States up to $33 billion annually from the full cohort of disconnected students. Additionally, the savings of additional public costs due to lower tax contributions and higher health care usage associated with lower cohort incomes are priceless.

Mitrankur (Mit) Majumdar is senior vice president and regional head of services, Americas at Infosys.

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