In 2012, long before remote learning was the norm, Andrew Moore, chief information officer at Boulder Valley School District, set out to close the district’s pernicious digital divide.
Too many BVSD students didn’t have home Internet, putting them at risk of falling behind.
He started small, running the district’s own fiber optic line to Broadway East, an affordable housing complex, to wire the 60 students living there with federally subsidized Internet.
It worked: Moore had fashioned a solution that could scale to thousands of students.
Then the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called. BVSD had violated federal law. The federal E-Rate program, which subsidizes BVSD’s Internet connections and equipment, could only be used to wire schools and libraries.
“I argued at the time that school was anywhere, anytime, on any device,” he said.
But his seemingly simple solution to Boulder’s digital divide — providing free in-home Internet to families who can’t afford it — was effectively jettisoned with a phone call from the federal government. “It was an odd day at the office for sure,” Moore said.
Today, nearly a decade later, 20% of BVSD’s 30,000 students are still without home access to fast or reliable Internet, Moore roughly estimates based on the percentage of children eligible for free and reduced lunch.
The hurdles highlight how even a relatively wealthy district like BVSD has struggled to address what is now an urgent education emergency. The FCC’s E-rate funds remain largely off limits for home Internet connectivity, even as the Biden administration explores allowing it.
Covid-19, at least, has accelerated local workaround solutions. While high-speed Internet in every BVSD student’s home is likely far off, everyone is expected to have access through their neighborhood school by the end of 2022, thanks to a unique public-private partnership with Live Wire Networks, a Denver-based broadband Internet company.
The move would shrink the digital divide to almost zero for the first time — at least theoretically. This is critical because most teachers assign homework that requires Internet access, fueling an especially cruel aspect of digital inequity: the “homework gap.”
At the start of this school year, 25 schools were equipped with Internet so strong that every BVSD family within a three-mile radius should be able to access it, according to Moore. That was up from five at the start of last year.
By the end of 2022, 45 schools will be connected. (The remaining 11 are in close proximity to connected schools.)
“I think what we did was solve this in the best way we could,” Moore said.
How It Works
Any BVSD family in the free and reduced lunch program (application here) is eligible for access through the partnership. They receive a free home antenna through Live Wire. Internet is provided at no cost.
The exception is mountain communities, where weak or no Internet is often about terrain. “Eventually LiveWire will be in Nederland,” Moore said. “But they’ll only be able to service the town, not the students’ homes over the hills on the other side of the mountain, because it won’t work.” And questions still remain about whether school-based Internet is strong and reliable enough to do homework.
|These BVSD schools should all be connected through Live Wire. Contact BVSD’s Information Technology Department here or call 720-561-HELP to learn how to connect. Lafayette Elementary, Meadowlark PK-8 School, Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School, Peak to Peak, Charter School, Ryan Elementary School, Alicia Sanchez Elementary School, Angevine Middle School, Centaurus High School, UniHill Elementary School, Kohl K-8, Emerald Elementary School, Crest View Elementary School, Columbine Elementary School, Whittier Elementary School, Casey Middle School, Centennial Middle School, Boulder High School, Fairview High School, Broomfield Heights MS, Broomfield HS, Douglas ES, Monarch HS, Summit MS and Birch ES.|
Getting to the Best Solution Available
After the FCC called to nix Moore’s experiment in equitable access at Broadway East, the agency worked with BVSD to ensure newly connected families at the affordable housing complex could keep their Internet. Moore found a non-E-rated Internet provider to continue service. But it was a one-off: E-rate funds half (approximately $50,000) of BVSD’s Internet expenses of about $100,000 per year. The district wouldn’t let that funding go.
In 2015, Moore connected with Live Wire. They brainstormed how to make the Internet legally accessible to all students under E-rate restrictions. Live Wire set up an Internet pilot at Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, using a microwave connection.
It did not beam a strong enough signal to reach into students’ homes. So they expanded the pilot to Angevine Middle School. This time, BVSD gave Live Wire one unused strand of the district’s own fiber cable already in the ground nearby to connect the neighboring students. Live Wire installed an antenna on the roof of the school and on the homes of eligible students. This resulted in a stronger connection. A solution was found.
BVSD’s underground fiber optic Internet infrastructure, funded by a bond in 2008, acts like a data highway. It connects schools, BVSD’s IT facility and the Live Wire antennas through a complex network strung together with 100 miles of fiber cables and other equipment.
“We are fortunate here because we own our fiber network. We could not have done what we did without that,” he said.
Then the Pandemic Hit
In April 2020, the BVSD Board of Education inked a contract with Live Wire to install broadband equipment on the roof of every school, under a program called ConnectME (Connect My Education). The district received two grants from the Colorado Department of Education in the amount of $150,000 and $1 million. This accelerated Live Wire’s work installing antennas on each school.
As each school waits to be connected through Live Wire, BVSD offers a service called Internet Essentials through a partnership with Comcast, installing high-speed Internet for families who need it at a reduced rate. BVSD picks up the bill. Only about 70 families receive this service.
BVSD also distributes mobile hotspots (the actual physical devices, not cellphones) from various providers — including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and the Boulder Public Library — through a service called IT Prime. The district also provides Chromebooks to every student who needs one. All told, BVSD provided 1,300 hotspots and thousands of Chromebooks during the pandemic, according to Moore.
“It’s important to recognize that Internet Essentials and hotspots are not sustainable solutions,” Moore said. “What’s most important is that BVSD is not stopping with temporary solutions.”
Helping Families Reach Out
Michele Leffler is BVSD’s instructional and business technology coordinator. When Covid-19 hit, her responsibilities shifted to helping BVSD students get Internet-connected, acting as a liaison between families and staff who worked for ConnectME and BVSD’s tech department.
When staff learn about students who need assistance, they guide families to contact Live Wire directly. Live Wire knows how to validate students in the free and reduced lunch program and will connect them for free. (By federal law, BVSD can’t share students’ information with Live Wire.)
However, Leffler said if families don’t reach out, BVSD doesn’t know who to help, raising questions about who might be slipping through the cracks of this program.
But for those families who are served by the program, she said she believes the results can be life-changing.
Leffler recalled speaking to a first-grader who translated Spanish and English between his mother and Leffler to receive Internet access early in the pandemic. After Leffler helped them connect with a modem, she told the child to call her on her cell phone if they needed anything.
“He called me everyday and told me what he learned in school. I miss those phone calls,” she said with a smile. “While it was like the Wild West to get these kids connected, these stories make it worth it.”
If you need more information, or know any families who need help, contact BVSD’s Information Technology Department here or call 720-561-HELP. If you are free and reduced lunch qualified, contact Live Wire directly here or call 303-548-5667 or 866-913-5221 to get your home device and connected to your neighborhood schools.