Written by IEEE | June 9, 2020

Many students took a spring break in late March only to come back to their studies through a virtual learning portal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While virtual learning helps reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission, schools were presented with a new problem: how to ensure every student has internet access so they could continue their education remotely.

“Before COVID-19 led to social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, students who needed access to broadband could use school computer labs, public libraries, on-campus Wi-Fi, public Wi-Fi, and other networks — there are documented cases where students were found parked outside fast food restaurants to use the Wi-Fi for homework,” explains IEEE Senior Member David Witkowski. “This all changed after the pandemic when people were forced to stay home and avoid public places.”

Witkowski says that digital inclusion and equity are crucial to keeping online learning accessible to all students in the Silicon Valley area where he lives. The swift change to remote learning meant that the “homework gap went from an embarrassing inconvenience to a social crisis,” he explains.

“In the wake of the pandemic we can no longer ignore the issue of digital equity and hope it will go away on its own,” says Witkowski.

Witkowski is co-chairing the Deployment Working Group as part of the IEEE Future Networks Initiative that aims to raise awareness of the internet accessibility issue and to encourage accelerated network build-outs at the national and international level.

“Part of the work we’re doing in the Deployment Working Group is calling attention to the socio-economic trends and factors that have driven, and continue to drive the societal shift towards mobile technologies and the apps that run on them,” says Witkowski. “Unfortunately, the deployment of networks that enable these technologies has not been equitable.”

This complements his work at Joint Venture Silicon Valley, where he leads programs that help ensure the region’s residents have adequate access to telecommunications for distance learning, telehealth, banking and online ordering of food and supplies.

“We’ve partnered with organizations to distribute hotspots and laptops, provide digital literacy training and raise awareness of the need for digital equity in education,” says Witkowski. “We’re also working directly with local governments to help them understand the need to accelerate the build-out of wireless networks to serve the neighborhoods where impacted students live. Hotspots are good tools but if there’s no network coverage they’re useless.”

Hotspots convert cellular signals to Wi-Fi to serve laptops with broadband access. If homes do not have the physical infrastructure or adequate wiring to deliver broadband, a hotspot helps students quickly gain internet access to continue their education from home.

“In many cases, the internal wiring of the building is sub-standard and often degraded from age or physical damage,” says Witkowski. “Cellular hotspots deliver broadband without the need for wiring, and they can be easily moved if the family is in a housing transition.”

While many schools are beginning to close out their spring semester and looking forward to fall planning, they are contemplating the likelihood of another term of virtual distance learning.

“We should expect that distance learning is the new normal for students,” says Witkowski. “This means that we must provide broadband to students at home. Broadband is the new textbook, and nobody would expect a student to successfully attend school without books.”

The current challenges of working and learning from home place a huge demand on our infrastructure. Listen to our webinar recording to hear technological and societal perspectives from expert panelists.

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