At the start of the 2017 school year, the Auburn School District began issuing Chromebooks to all Middle and High School students. The goal was to advance learning through technology. With the issuance of this new tool, many teachers in the district are utilizing more electronic assignments and means of communication with students and families. However, students without broadband access at home are at a disadvantage, falling victim to the widening homework gap. The Auburn City Council is considering a way to close that gap by providing free broadband access through digital parity.
How Big is the Homework Gap?
The homework gap is the barrier between students who have access to a reliable internet source at home. According to the FCC, an estimated 70% of teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband. Yet a 2015 study from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Family Online Safety Institute, and My College Options found that nearly 50% of students said they have been unable to complete a homework assignment because they didn’t have access to the Internet or a computer. Additionally, 42% of students said they received a lower grade on an assignment because they didn’t have access to the Internet.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 82.5% American homes with school-age children had broadband access. With approximately 29 million households in the U.S. having children between the ages of 6 and 17, according to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, this means that some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. Low-income households, notably black and Hispanic ones, make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million.
The continued analysis shows about one-third (31.4%) of households whose incomes fall below $50,000, with children ages 6 to 17 do not have access to high-speed internet. This group of low-income households makes up roughly 40% of all U.S. families with school-age children. The other notable disparity in home broadband access relates to the race and ethnicity of the family. Lower-income black and Hispanic households with children starkly fall below white households with children by about 10 percentage points.
Auburn City Council Looks at Closing the Gap
Closing Auburn’s homework gap became a goal for the City Council in November 2015. When determining their strategic vision for the City of Auburn, the Council included the exploration of establishing an internet utility. A supplement to that goal is to leverage the available fiber optic infrastructure to achieve digital parity within the city.
Access Auburn, the city’s free broadband services, was launched downtown in August 2015. Auburn’s network has since expanded throughout the city in various locations. The infrastructure is present for the potential to expand that access throughout the city in larger coverage. Utilizing the free and reduced lunch program statistics from ASD, the city has target areas that free broadband would most benefit.
A pilot region near Game Farm park has been tested, the results satisfactory to Council. The question for Council is not should the program be implemented, but what is the coverage goal. If access to broadband was provided to 80% of low-income students, that would also bring services to 54% of all Auburn residents. Innovation and Technology Direction Paul Haugen provided cost estimates to the City Council for coverage of 50%, 50% and 80% of low-income students. Providing access to the targeted coverage of 80% of low-income students would get Auburn close to being a truly connected city. The prospect of providing access to 80% of the entire city would cost an estimated $6.2 million.
Fitting It Into The Budget
It is expected that when coverage and use get to a certain point, ASD will take over coverage. As ASD pays 10% of what the city pays for broadband access, this will be more cost-effective for the district to maintain coverage. Currently, the city sees approximately 3,000 users a day on Access Auburn. A much firmer determination of citizens versus students will be made at the time of that switch.
An intriguing aspect of this project is the cost efficiency of technology. Not only does Auburn have good infrastructure in the ground for fiber optics, but the technology surrounding fiber optics continue to advance. This advancement allows for the cost projections, according to Haugen, to almost assuredly lower as innovative technology is constantly developed.
That the city has built strong relationships with fiber optics companies also places the project in a strong position. Recently a 1:1 trade occurred wherein the city received four miles of fiber optics cable in exchange for the use of conduit pipe that was lying unused by the city. This trade benefited both the company and the city, as it reduced the company’s project time and cost and provided the city with needed cable. Thinking green, it also reused pipe that was otherwise going to waste.
The free broadband does have its limitations. Users can not access programs such as Netflix or the music streaming site, Pandora. But as it offers many educational videos, YouTube is accessible from the Access Auburn network. The network would not be limited to only students, adding an additional benefit to the adults of low-income families who may utilize the internet for educational or work purposes. Additionally, when traffic increases the broadband will decrease in speed.
Leveraging Broadband Access for Economic Development
In addition to closing the homework gap with digital parity, expanding Auburn’s broadband access would have a notable impact on the city’s economic development. In today’s economy, “being able to have high-speed broadband and fiber optics available is fast becoming a requirement” said Haugen.
The aspect of drawing people to locations with unlimited, free, WiFi, is an appeal for businesses. Beyond this, potential business uses include push notifications from those businesses within the boundaries of Auburn’s broadband. The broadband capabilities also include the abilities to help people locate AED devices for victims of heart attacks, finding walking paths and determining safe routes through parks and a hands-free parking locator.
The City Council will determine how much funding this project will receive at the upcoming budget retreat. Some believe investing in the next generation should take precedent, while others maintain concern for city infrastructure, such as roads. At the December 11th Study Session, Councilmember John Holman stated that our low-income students are already surpassing Bellevue students. He further cautioned the Council “to not look to the next election cycle, but really start thinking generationally. It’s the next generation we should be more concerned about. Should be most concerned about.”