Repurposing Educational Spectrum to Address Digital Equity: Case Study: Albemarle County Public Schools, VA

In this next series of posts from my work study, I will describe communities where school systems are partnering with city governments, business communities, and nonprofit organizations to "go big" in addressing digital equity. As we previously noted, digital equity is a community challenge, not solely one that can be solved by a school district.

One of the most ambitious digital equity initiatives I have discovered is a targeted community broadband initiative by Albemarle County Public Schools. ACPS covers an expanse of 726 square miles at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including Charlottesville, Virginia. Their effort is just starting, but it’s already the sort of creative, out-of-the-box strategy I hope other districts will consider as a way to address access outside of school for all students, especially those from economically disadvantaged families.

The effort started about two years ago when CTO Vincent Scheivert learned from the business side of the district that they owned educational broadcast spectrum (EBS) licenses. Some school districts and universities own these licenses, dating back to when educational television was broadcast to the community. ACPS had leased theirs out for years.  

Scheivert recognized that this spectrum could be used to provide community broadband for students living in poor communities and remote locations without a current broadband provider. After registering the spectrum in the division’s name with the FCC, they began to test out this concept. The first step was to attempt a small test-bed using the 2.5 Gigahertz spectrum using mounted antennas on school buildings. The effort required collaboration across a far-flung district, including in partnerships with local police and fire agencies.

The great news is that over an 8 mile area, the pilot successfully provided bandwidth speeds averaging 13 Megabits per second to unserved families. This initial pilot was important and yet uncertain because the 2.5 Gigahertz spectrum (considered true broadband) doesn’t typically do well in densely built areas. After the initial positive results, ACPS extended the LTE network to students living in remote areas with low to medium incomes and is working on a residential pilot which will include work with public housing agencies.

Albemarle is hoping to extend use of this Wi-Fi/spectrum to all students, but that would take additional financial support. So at this time, the project is more of a “proof of concept” available only to families in certain geographic areas (targeting under-served areas). Given additional funding, the district hopes to expand the service to all students within a 3-5 year period. It has also appealed to the FCC for a waiver to allow E-Rate funds to be used to address digital equity outside the school. The decision is still pending.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Conduct an asset inventory and think creatively about the resources you can bring to the table in your community. Like Albemarle, you might find success with under-utilized or re-purposed resources!
  • Consider trying new strategies – and don’t be afraid to ask for permission to try new strategies.

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