By Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO at SiFi Networks.
Infrastructure could become the defining word of 2021 and beyond, with everyone from the American Society of Civil Engineers to the American president himself talking about the role of infrastructure in the post-Covid-19 U.S. economic recovery. But what exactly does good infrastructure, and in particular, telecoms fiber networks, mean for people making the transition to home and remote learning?
The education sector continues to be one of the worst-hit by the global Covid-19 pandemic, with schools and universities closing their doors or facing severe disruption. Nearly overnight, students and educators had to adapt. Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO recently said that, “Over 1.4 billion learners worldwide are affected by school closures… schooling on our planet has gone virtual, delivered over airwaves and broadband, or has just stopped.”
At the same time, she expressed concern that the greatest danger was to children from marginalized backgrounds, and that the scale of the challenge demands innovation, partnership and solidarity.
A Sector In Flux
It’s a challenge that teachers have risen to admirably, adapting learning methods to cater to an unprecedented learning environment. Flexible timings, virtual learning tools, breakout peer-to-peer Zoom calls and real-time data insights have all helped teachers to facilitate student progress. And while these methods are no replacement for in-person, face-to-face learning, they have certainly demonstrated that learning doesn’t have to take place within the confines of the classroom.
Post pandemic, most experts now agree that the education sector will settle on some form of a blended learning model in the coming years. Here, teachers will take advantage of the digital insights offered through virtual learning but still deliver the formative learning imparted best through in-person teaching.
In the U.S. this will be of particular benefit to cold-weather states regularly hit by snow days. States including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Minnesota record some of the highest numbers of snow days each year. These not only disrupt learning for students, but they also highlight the inadequate broadband connections many families contend with. Remote learning will allow teachers to fall back on virtual classrooms on days when schools are closed due to snow. This blended learning, however, will rely on one key element: strong infrastructure.
Siblings taking turns to share devices, a zip-code lottery or a lack of funding — these are all terms that have been used to describe remote learning and its widening of the digital divide in the U.S. The disparity has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic and looks set to worsen as more people begin to permanently work from home. Poor broadband infrastructure has been identified as one of the root causes of the problem.
It’s no surprise then that the U.S. received a cumulative grade of “C-” for infrastructure in the 2021 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, with the grade classifying infrastructure as “mediocre” and one that “shows signs of deterioration” and “requires attention.”
Having already identified this as a sticking point in an earlier speech, President Joe Biden announced $100 billion to expand U.S. broadband access as part of his $2 trillion infrastructure bill. Speaking in Pittsburgh on March 31, the president said, “Millions of Americans, though, lack access to reliable high-speed internet, including more than 35% of rural America.”
He added: “Americans pay too much for Internet service. We’re going to drive down the price for families who have service now, and make it easier for families who don’t have affordable service to be able to get it now. As you saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electric and power — power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses, with tragic results.”
A Fiber Future
The news of infrastructure investment comes as specialist fiber developers have been working in recent years to roll out America’s next generation of fiber networks. Companies — including the likes of MetroNet, ALLO Communications and SiFi Networks — are changing the landscape for broadband.
Many of these companies are also guided by the principle of open access, a model of broadband that opens up the network to multiple competitors, eliminating the traditional monopolies that have dominated U.S. telecoms for the last century.
By leveling the playing field in this way, fiber networks will also eliminate the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who don’t.
For remote learning, this means that students benefit from 1 gigabit symmetrical upload and download speeds — a significant improvement on the current 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds available to most, and almost unimaginable for many rural areas currently receiving a maximum of 6 Mbps download speeds.
The added benefit of many of these privately funded schemes is that schools and educational establishments can create their own private networks, allowing teachers to safeguard students by restricting access to only those on the network. This will eliminate the trend of “zoombombing” experienced in the early days of the pandemic where thousands of video calls were left exposed on the open web.
The events of the last year have highlighted just how much of a need there is to significantly upgrade key parts of our national infrastructure. As the education sector continues to adapt and the nature of remote learning changes for the better, it’s about time we also looked at the underlying broadband technology that will provide a better learning experience for all students.