Marsha Cody calls it a “Christmas miracle.”
Two days before Christmas, she got a call from Ciello, one of the local internet providers in the San Luis Valley. As the interim superintendent of the Alamosa School District, Cody was stumped about what to do as several students seemed to disappear each week. They no longer had internet.
The district knew it had a problem before school resumed in August. Its teachers talked to every family over the summer to figure out who had internet and who didn’t. Some said they were fine — they could walk to McDonald’s and use the free Wi-Fi. One had an aunt who lived with them and had a mobile hotspot.
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The school district was already working with Ciello and another local internet provider, Jade Communications, to cover the cost for households who couldn’t afford service. But as the pandemic took its toll, Cody realized more and more students were losing access as area businesses closed, parents lost jobs and internet bills went unpaid.
“We were noticing that in November, it was about three to five families a week that we were finding out there’s a (new) need,” said Cody, who oversees a district of 2,200 students. “It’s because of the situation we’re in, with people losing jobs. It’s the economic turmoil that we’re in.”
There were parts of the region that neither Ciello nor Jade served. The 185-site Century Mobile Home Park, for example. In the COVID era, digital divide issues have been magnified as people work and study from home. The lack of internet is getting more attention. But while advocates realize they need to consider long-term solutions, it’s up to communities to respond, move quickly and resolve the issue, even if it’s just temporary.
Monroe Johnson, Ciello’s chief technology officer, started looking into what his company could do following a Zoom call with the district on Dec. 18. On the eve of Christmas Eve, he had some good news for students living in the mobile home park.
“Monroe called me and said, ‘Marsha,’ it was like my own little Christmas miracle. He’s like ‘I was talking to the city and it turns out that they have fiber,’” Cody recalled. “He’s like, ‘And they’re willing to allow us to connect to it. It won’t cost much for me to build an electric pole there and they’re willing to move things quickly on their end this week’ — the week of Christmas no less — to get waivers and everything needed to start moving towards it so we could have connectivity to that trailer park by the end of January.”
On Wednesday, Jim Belknap, IT director for the cities of Alamosa and Monte Vista, was overseeing the fiber splice that will allow Ciello to tap into the city’s fiber and get service to the mobile home park. Later this week or next, Ciello will be installing a pole to beam broadband service wirelessly to the community. The district will line up families with Ciello to install service in upcoming weeks.
“Inside of two weeks of the idea, they’ll be able to have broadband to this entire area in the dead of winter,” said Belknap, who kept track of the project even though he was on vacation the whole time. “At the same time, our planning department worked to expedite an application for a telecommunication tower, which is what’s required to put that pole up.”
Normally, the city permitting process can take three to four months. Plus, the city already had some fiber in the ground, thanks to Alamosa voters in 2018. They overturned a state law known as Senate Bill 152, which prevents cities from providing internet service. But a few cities fed up with sub-par service from cable providers began opting out a decade ago, leading the way for new internet service in their communities. More than 140 municipalities in Colorado have opted out, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The city of Alamosa didn’t want to become its own ISP but work with providers. So anytime it digs up the streets, it lays down conduit that can be used by local internet companies.
“We are pro broadband is what I’m trying to say,” Belknap said. “We try to expedite any kind of broadband project we can for the citizens of Alamosa, and during COVID especially, to get bandwidth to an underserved area, we really want to help the citizens.”
Rural broadband is still expensive
Even though Colorado’s statewide rural broadband coverage is close to 88%, there’s a reason why we’re not at 100%. Households in rural communities often live far away from their neighbors and it’s too expensive to run fiber internet lines connecting homes that are miles apart. Trees, mountains and other infrastructure can also limit wireless signals. Satellite has been an option, but it’s often slow and expensive. SpaceX’s Starlink service is coming soon for a reported $99 a month for 50 to 150 mbps, plus $499 for the setup kit, according to Reuters.
Providers, including Ciello, still need to make the finances work but they may have it a bit easier than the Comcasts and the Lumens (formerly CenturyLink). Those companies have public shareholders to please.
The Century Mobile Home park will now have internet access, but it’ll cost between $39 and $59 a month for service of 25 or 50 mbps.
The district will pay for the service for the students identified as not having internet — and it’s settled on the $59 tier because anything slower would make it difficult for multiple students to use video conferencing simultaneously. Ciello offers free installation. Combined with existing service to students through Jade and Ciello, the district will be footing the bill for about 60 families in January.
To pay the monthly fees, school districts have been able to tap federal CARES Act funds. But Cody is constantly looking for more. She’s expecting to get a $120,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Education Connecting Colorado Students Grant Program, made possible by the state legislature’s special session in December. There’s $20 million available and schools must apply by Jan. 8 (here’s the application).
That new grant would also help the district get about 200 hotspots at $15 a month each from T-Mobile. That’s a cost of about $3,000 per month.
“We’re willing to get a little over 200 hotspots. And then you multiply that by $15 each per month, that’s a lot of money,” she said. “That’s almost a teacher.”
There may be other funding available. Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement for the Colorado Broadband Office, works with different companies and communities to apply for federal grants.
She pointed to the latest federal COVID-relief plan that passed last month. It included $81.88 billion to continue CARES Act programs, which provided $4.1 billion for the Governors Emergency Education Relief funds and $54.3 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency funds.
“School districts are encouraged to work with internet service providers in their communities to identify and apply for funding to provide, expand and/or create internet access for students and teachers,” Ferguson said in an email. “Many districts are looking at this grant program as an opportunity to develop long-term broadband solutions that will not only serve students’ current eLearning needs, but will provide a solution to the decade-long homework gap that students will continue to experience post-pandemic.”
No easy fix to make temporary more permanent
Ciello’s new internet line is considered temporary, but Johnson said that the company would just add more antennas if more households sign up for service. The company can serve the community permanently, he said.
However, the relief funds and grants the school is using to pay for service will run out when the pandemic is over.
“If I had a wish, if I had a magic wand, it’s gonna come down to fiscal support, economic support to connect a home,” Cody said. “However, there’s got to be a long-term plan.”
The digital divide has been amplified during the pandemic. While most schools in America have broadband, that’s not the case for some students at home. And it’s not just rural communities, but low-income urban areas where internet costs are above the family budget.
Before COVID struck, an estimated 30% of students in America’s K-12 public schools lacked adequate internet, according to research by Common Sense Media, an organization known for rating movies and media for parents.
Colorado did fairly well compared to other states. With 23% of students lacking adequate high-speed connection, the state had the fifth lowest rate of students with inadequate access.
Amina Fazlullah, Common Sense Media’s policy counsel who worked on the “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning” report, calls it the homework gap. In trying to be equitable, teachers stopped giving homework assignments.
“What we found was that teachers were starting to avoid assigning homework back in 2019,” Fazlullah said. “Even if you had a connected classroom, even if you had devices, even if you had all sorts of teacher training and support, when a kid goes home and they know that devices turn into a brick, a teacher is not going to assign homework that students can’t complete.”
In 2019, students who didn’t have any at home would cobble resources together, by going to the library, or a coffee shop or fast food restaurant with free service.
“That was semi-acceptable, which seems absurd right now,” Fazlullah said. “Now, since March 2020, there’s been a gigantic push for distance learning because they had to. And so schools stepped in and started to figure out how they can deploy distance learning, in part, driven by their duty to provide education. And if they couldn’t provide equitable access to education, a lot of schools, at the beginning of the pandemic, were closing completely.”
After analyzing the state of distance learning, Common Sense Media published a second report in October on best practices and how school districts could close the divide. If schools could keep engaging their communities and survey families on both sides of the digital divide each year, that data could help lawmakers put numbers to the need and in turn, pass policies to address specific communities.
“One thing that is incredibly useful that has come out of the pandemic is that most schools have done some form of a digital divide needs assessment,” she said. “And if they’re able to formally do that and repeat it, it’ll be an incredible treasure trove of data.”
Cody, meanwhile, said states or the U.S. government should consider paying for internet service based on need, much like reduced lunch rates. Or schools could include the cost of paying for service each year and submit it as a budget item.
At minimum, she hopes the state will let schools stay at the previous year’s funding levels instead of penalizing schools with lower student attendance during COVID. Her district saw its student count drop 8% during COVID.
“Connectivity is crazy, crazy expensive and so we appreciate the help with installation,” Cody said. “My concern now is the long-term connectivity for our students because it does create a huge equity gap when we’re talking about a post-COVID world.”
While the Alamosa School District returned to in-person teaching on Tuesday, Fridays are spent remote learning so “our custodians work on deep cleaning, particularly the classrooms,” she said. There’s also about 420 students who continue to remain in virtual classes full time.
But she knows that with vaccinations still unavailable for most Coloradans, families aren’t returning to work. She fears that more students will disappear because they no longer can afford adequate internet.
“That’s our million dollar question — what percentage?” she said. “Because every time we think we know, we don’t.”