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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Redefining Connectivity in small town America and the masking of the digital divide

At a recent trip to a small town on the Oregon Coast, I was sitting in a restaurant and overheard a nearby conversation about connectivity.  4 locals (that was my impression anyway) were talking about their cell phone reception in certain parts of town.  Most agreed that the most expensive carrier in town (Verizon) offered the best coverage.  The discussion then moved on to the geographical challenges of every other carrier and where they received the best reception.

This discussion, remember, is simply about cell phone reception.  It is a fairly common discussion that occurs in small town America on a frequent basis.  In general, though, discussions of cell phone reception and of wireless broadband have been two distinct discussions.   People can certainly use their phones as very slow hotspots, but this type of connection has never been classified as broadband connectivity.  Indeed, some students use phone connectivity to do some research, but this type of work is often limited by speed and data costs.

In a few weeks, though, the FCC will be voting to reclassify some types of cell phone connectivity as broadband.  Although this might not seem that significant, it can/will have a potentially severe long term impact that will mask the digital divide for years to come. Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of municipalities aimed at expanding local broadband access, observes that "it seems antithetical to all the other efforts we’re doing. “I spent a good part of my life as a teacher and a principal. If I had a classroom full of children that included a lot of failing students, I wouldn’t change my standards [to increase the number of passing grades,] I’d change the intervention.”  (The FCC's Next Stunt: Reclassifying Cell Phone Data Service as 'Broadband Internet')

Redefining connectivity in order to show that people have connectivity when they really don't is poor public policy.   The vast majority of Americans might not notice this change or care all that much as it doesn't affect them directly.  If a household already has access to high speed broadband, then a reclassification of cell phone plans as broadband might not matter.  However, if you listen closely to conversations about connectivity in smaller towns, you might be surprised at how difficult being connected (through broadband and/or cellphone) can be.

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