Texas district hopes to bridge homework gap with SpaceX satellite tech

In the rush to help connect every student and teacher to home internet so learning could continue away from school buildings, some districts are providing mobile hot spots and working with local telecom companies to build the above- and below-ground infrastructure for reliable Wi-Fi.

But in Odessa, Texas, the Ector County Independent School District is reaching toward the stars to bring internet access to families’ homes. Through a unique partnership, the district is the first in the country to work with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system to transmit high-speed, low-latency internet access to the homes of students and teachers.

“That type of solution for our children that do not have access in their home is priceless,” said ECISD Superintendent Scott Muri, who is pictured in the photo above at a press conference announcing the partnership. “It allows us to close the digital divide for those kids so that their learning does not have to be hindered any longer.”

The service will be piloted beginning in early 2021 and will start with 45 families who are students or educators in the ECISD community. As the satellite capacity grows, service will expand to an additional 90 ECISD families.

The district has identified families for the pilot based on data showing they live in more remote locations that have no options for home internet service. The pilot will provide the Wi-Fi router and other equipment necessary for access to internet services, which will be free to those families for the first year.

Through surveys done in late spring of ECISD teachers, students and families, the district determined 39% of its school community did not have reliable access to broadband internet in their homes, which meant students and teachers had difficulty participating in video conferencing for classes and creating, reviewing and completing online assignments, Muri said.

The district is currently offering in-person learning to students, and about 65% have opted for face-to-face instruction, Muri said. For students who have no home-based internet access and have chosen to learn from home, they are using pencils and paper to complete assignments, he said.

“It’s the divide between the haves and have-nots,” Muri said. “Their learning since March in a paper-and-pencil environment is just not what it should be, so their learning gap continues to get wider and wider, and that’s wrong  especially because we have solutions today.”

Even if the SpaceX pilot extends to 135 families, it still doesn’t fix all the home connectivity challenges in the district, Muri said. ECISD is continuing to ramp up other solutions, such as providing high-speed internet to families who live within cable service areas and purchasing Wi-Fi devices that feed off nearby cellular towers.

The SpaceX pilot will not replace those efforts, Muri said. “This is simply another piece of the portfolio.”

Support through partnerships

The SpaceX Starlink satellite technology was first opened to users via invitation in October, with a beta testing period titled Better Than Nothing, according to the Starlink website and news reports. ARS Technica reports a few beta users said the stability of the signal was spotty at times on the first day of connectivity, but that they have been impressed with the overall services.

Eventually, SpaceX’s ambitions include providing worldwide, high-speed, low-latency internet through a constellation of thousands of satellites hovering in low-Earth orbit, according to Space.com.

The Starlink internet service is priced at $99 per month. A kit with a user terminal, mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router costs $499, according to reporting from CNBC.

The families in Ector County will not have to pay those costs because the $300,000 expense of the hardware and services for the 135 families is paid for through grants, Muri said. Chiefs for Change, along with the Players Coalition — a nonprofit organized by professional athletes and coaches — contributed $150,000 toward the ECISD Starlink program. GROW Odessa, a local nonprofit that supports Odessa’s economic growth, contributed $100,000, according to Muri.

The district also received funding from the Permian Strategic Partnership, which introduced ECISD to SpaceX.  PSP is a collection of 20 Permian Basin energy companies working in New Mexico and Texas, including Chevron, Halliburton, Shell and others.

Mike Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a member organization of local and state education administrators, said a digital divide and learning disadvantage between those with devices and internet access and those without has existed for quite a while, but the pandemic-driven need to access learning from home has made finding solutions an urgent cause. 

So far during the pandemic, Chiefs for Changes has provided about $750,000 in grants for school districts across the country to purchase hot spots and devices, and to pay for other efforts to broaden access to Wi-Fi, Magee said. 

At the same time, many school districts were doing what they could to keep students and teachers connected to learning. For example, the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas partnered with the city of San Antonio to access unused “dark fiber” to connect students’ homes to school Wi-Fi networks through existing connections and new fiber optic cables, Chiefs for Change detailed in a report highlighting solutions districts are using to bring internet to students’ homes. 

“Our members also scrambled,” Magee said. “They raised money locally. They spent money in anticipation of being able to pass bonds in the fall. It was a true, within our membership, national mobilization effort to get every child connected.”

Seeking universal long-term solutions

There are about 17 million children nationwide who do not have high-speed home internet service provided through cable, fiber or digital subscriber lines. Although many families have smartphones with wireless internet capability, those services are not sufficient for learning purposes, according to Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education. 

Magee said many students who don’t have high-speed, home-based internet service are those from families with lower incomes because the infrastructure is not in place where they live or because the service fees are not affordable, creating an inequitable digital divide.

Chiefs for Change, along with other advocacy groups, is asking telecom companies to waive policies that require people to pay outstanding balances in order to restore home internet services. Education-related groups are also urging the federal government to allow E-rate funds to be spent on providing devices and internet connections to students’ homes

“It’s a pressing problem,” Magee said. “We’ve also already written to the president-elect to ask him to address this on day one of the new administration. The federal government has a very important role to play in this.”

The goal is to find long-term sustainable approaches to provide permanent, high-speed broadband access to every child, Magee said.

“Part of this is trying to serve the children of Ector County but the other part is trying to use this moment of innovation to raise awareness about the problem and potential solutions,” Magee said.

National PTA President Leslie Boggs, who lives in Ector County, said she applauds all the efforts educators and parents are making nationwide to keep students learning during the pandemic, but access to reliable internet is a significant challenge. 

The National PTA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation have developed a website that shows connectivity gaps for various student demographics and geographical regions. The National PTA also joined other education stakeholders to ask Congress for $4 billion in a future stimulus bill to help students equitably access online learning from home and schools. 

Funding, however, is just one part of the solution, said Boggs, who worries about the sustainability of reliable internet access for students, families and educators. Learning losses during the pandemic are another top concern, Boggs said.

“How far will students fall back?” she said. “We have a lot of work to do when this is done.”

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