With more about 10,000 students learning remotely and a large component of the local workforce telecommuting, it is anyone’s guess how much bandwidth is gobbled up each weekday.  

Since each public-school student has a Chromebook or other tablet for remote learning, and the Evanston Public Library and Evanston Township High School lend hotspots for connectivity, the digital divide would appear in some ways lessening. It is, however, in other ways, deepening.

Hot spots and devices are the most obvious necessary components of helping to bridge the device, but, with more and more remote learning and working, bandwidth is becoming critical.

In an article titled “How Local CIOs Can Help Narrow the Digital Divide Amid COVID,”   posted this month in GovTech.com, Luke Stowe, the City’s Chief Information Officer wrote, “Defeating the digital divide is much more than wiring up a home with an Internet connection. Families, particularly those with school-age children, often experience gaps in device access, digital literacy and cyber-hygiene. There might not be enough devices, the hardware may be outdated or incompatible, and there may be a lack of security software. The household may also need training, have privacy concerns or require additional digital wraparound services.”  https://www.govtech.com/opinion/How-Local-CIOs-Can-Help-Narrow-the-Digital-Divide-Amid-COVID.html

A Bandwidth Chasm

This pinch is being felt in Evanston.

District 65 Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley said students have logged onto 7,137 devices. The more than 3,000 students at District 202 (Evanston Township High School] are “97% logged on” daily, ETHS officials said.

District 65 Board member Rebeca Mendoza said at the District’s Sept. 14 Board meeting that  connectivity is causing frustration for many families that have several people on the Internet simultaneously. Intensified usage causes “throttling” – or slowing down the speed of the computer as it approaches the cap of the bandwidth.

Ms. Mendoza asked, “Have there been any more attempts to talk to the City about building the infrastructure … about ‘How do we go beyond individual hotspots?’ That is certainly going to be a continued frustration for folks. And not everybody can afford to buy the boosters or whatever else that is required to make that work. So, what’s our consideration of that … as we go further?”

At two separate meetings over the past few months, representatives from District 65, Evanston Township High School and Northwestern University discussed this issue, Chief Financial Officer Rafael Obafemi told the RoundTable.

The topic, he said, was “to explore finding solutions to internet connectivity issues in the City for our economically disadvantaged community members. We discussed various ideas. Some were short term, such as negotiating a lower rate with hotpots providers. … One of the longer term ideas we discussed was the possibility of a joint RFQ [request for qualifications] from the City of Evanston, District 65 and ETHS, directed to internet providers, to leverage the three organizations’ buying power. The conversations are in the early stages and we plan to continue meeting to explore additional options.”

At the Sept. 17 City-Schools Liaison Committee meeting, Mr. Stowe said, “One of the challenges right now is that the usage has changed right from a year ago. Now there are so much more bandwidth-intensive, video-intensive [activity with] Zoom calls, etc. that it is putting some strains on [connectivity]. So even if a family has a hotspot assigned to them by District 202 or District 65, they may be stretching the limits of those devices.”

Possible Solutions

Hotspots are helpful in the short term in these days of remote learning, Mr. Stowe said, but “they’re not necessarily a perfect long-term solution. Getting better pricing through a reliable carrier will allow most Evanston residents to have access to Internet connection, he said.

District 65 has done that, Mr. Obafemi said. “We reached out to T-Mobile and RCN. District 65 was able to get discounted pricing from T-Mobile.”

Eric Walker said T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast have programs for low-income families to be able to get internet access for $10 a month. “If families can get Internet access, that’s 10 times faster than what we can offer with a hotspot at half the cost that we pay for a hotspot. Anything we can do to encourage families and help them get onto those programs would be a boon for everyone.”

But 5G is on its way, having arrived at many carriers already – T Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, as examples. This new technology, coupled with the vagaries of Wi-Fi service in certain areas and conditions, make underground cable the better long-term solution, Mr. Stowe said.

Eric Walker said, similarly “We actually don’t want to do that with Wi Fi. Wi Fi as a technology is great for outdoor spaces, but it does not penetrate through walls very well. And even if you were to put Wi Fi access points on the top of say, every light pole down a street, it would not penetrate well enough into homes to get the kind of speeds that you desire for multiple Chromebooks and iPads to be able to do Zoom classes and YouTube, curriculum, streaming and all the other things that our kids are doing.

“So we want to make sure that as we put a solution in it has not only the backbone to work effectively, which really means fiber underground, in most instances, but it also means probably a combination of different technologies – what’s called heterogeneous networks or hep nets, which are a combination of large cell and small cell wireless technologies.”

Jon Yates, Interim Assistant Vice President of Communications, Global Marketing & Communications at Northwestern University, told the RoundTable, “Northwestern University is excited to participate in discussions with D65 and the City of Evanston about efforts to address the digital divide and issues of affordable internet access for the community. Northwestern has provided guidance and advice based on our experience operating high-performance networks that service a diverse population. We look forward to continuing to work with District 65 and Evanston on this important project.”

Although the City-Schools Liaison Committee will not meet again until January, efforts and research will continue with a working group composed of Mr. Obafemi, Mr. Wacker, Mr. Stowe and representatives from Evanston Township High School, Evanston Public Library and Northwestern University.

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