As Colorado Schools Reopen, Thousands Of Students Still Don’t Have Reliable Internet

Tim Miles, technology director in the Steamboat Springs school district, sees power in working together. He and the technology directors at two school cooperative associations formed the Colorado Education Broadband Coalition, which connects 50 schools.

“We’ve saved enormous amounts of money for those schools because we go to bid as one big large school.”  He hopes to expand the coalition to the entire state.

Still, families in outlying areas may not benefit.Ciara Bartholomew, the business and finance manager for the South Routt School District said the district has patched together some short-term solutions. The district collaborated with organizations to put up cell phone towers, which “hopscotch” to another tower to provide connectivity to students. It invested in a router device placed in a school bus that’s parked in high-need locations.

“It is not the long-term goal,” she said. “The long-term goal really needs to be laying a fiber in the ground and making sure this is a utility like water and like a roof over a student’s head.”

Telecommunication companies will have to be part of the fix, too.

At the summit, representatives from the telecommunications companies Verizon, Comcast and T-Mobile outlined efforts they’re making so far to expand access.

Comcast has worked closely with several Colorado school districts to connect more families to its low-cost Internet Essentials package. Verizon says it’s lifted and increased the data caps on mobile phone users. T-Mobile says it had designed a program to help solve the “homework gap” for students who couldn’t complete assignments online from home. He said the company is in the process as it merges with Sprint of redesigning that program for full-time learning.

“How do you create universal access? It takes all of us,” T-Mobile’s Brent Cooper said, referring to the fact that different companies have different coverage areas. “I think all of us working together, we can help make a big difference.”

The three companies committed Wednesday to working with the Coloradans for the Common Good on a plan to selectively boost coverage in certain areas.

Cooper cautioned that while the intent to expand coverage is good, there has to be buy-in from municipalities.

“Sometimes we’re limited by a city that’s saying you can’t put up a cell site there. The reality is, we need to put up a really big cell site in order to cover a big area but then we get limited to, ‘You can only put it on this building or it can only be this tall, you just can’t cover as many people with good wireless coverage.”

Denverites will vote on a measure this November to exempt the city from a state law that prevents local governments from investing in broadband services and infrastructure. It could pave the path one day for citywide high-speed internet.

“We do not impede some families’ access to our libraries and we should not impede some families’ access to the internet,” Denver councilman Paul Kashmann said during the virtual summit.

Teachers and school officials say they can’t wait much longer.

Kevin Vick with the Colorado Education Association said teachers are trying to design high-quality, engaging lessons, but if kids can’t connect, they tune out.

“They’re not going to even try to turn the machine on or even engage and that’s where we are losing lots of students,” he said. “This isn’t going to go away just because COVID may be dissipating.”

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