SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—Closure of the nation’s schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on the gap in access to broadband internet service between those with means and those without, those in cities and suburbs and those in rural America.
With classrooms closed, school districts have turned to online meeting tools like Zoom and virtual learning environments like Blackboard Learn to deliver lessons to millions of homebound students. However, these sorts of tools can only be effective if students can access the internet.
The FCC’s “2019 Broadband Deployment Report” puts the number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband connectivity at 21.3 million; however, a study by BroadbandNow Research in February indicates the number is closer to twice that.
Jim DeChant, vice president of Technology at News-Press & Gazette (NPG) Broadcasting, however, says there is an alternative to the internet that can fill this digital divide and deliver lessons tailored to individual students regardless of where they live or their economic circumstances.
“We believe the deployment of ATSC 3.0 and set top [home gateway] devices can substantially accelerate not only the educational and emergency alerting model, but also help facilitate the deployment of 3.0 for other purposes that would be also of great benefit,” says DeChant.
By taking advantage of specific tools available in the ATSC 3.0 standard, broadcasters can deliver lessons over the air to students that can be stored on a NextGen TV home gateway and accessed via Wi-Fi from a home computer, media tablet or cell phone using a web browser, he says.
“It is mind-blowingly exciting what kind of educational opportunities there will be with 3.0,” says Angee Simmons, National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) vice president of content. “It’s not just for the kids who can afford it. It breaks through all of these barriers we face everyday—whether it’s because you are living in poverty, or you are living in a rural area with no access. This breaks down those divisions.”
The wheels began to turn for DeChant in January at the 2020 International CES in Las Vegas. There, he saw the DigiCAP HomeCaster, a gateway device with ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 receivers, 2GB of onboard storage and Wi-Fi capability.
“We were intrigued by that technology, initially for emergency alerting,” says DeChant. “We’d been given a presentation by RAPA [the Korea Radio Promotion Association] last summer of the Korean gateways they’ve installed publicly to provide emergency alerting information over ATSC 3.0 to devices that may not have an ATSC 3.0 receiver.”
News-Press & Gazette looked at conducting its own tests in Santa Barbara on its Class A station KSBB-CD and applied for a grant from RAPA, which it received. RAPA provided the station group with a South Korean 3.0 airchain and the DigiCAP HomeCaster.
Coincidentally, at about the same time NPG was commissioning the 3.0 airchain and bringing the HomeCaster online, the COVID-19 outbreak was becoming a serious concern.
“In the process of this, our general manager at the KEYT-TV, whose wife works as an educator, was discussing that the public school students in Santa Barbara—as well as many college students—were having to learn at home,” he recalls.
“That was great except many of the public school students didn’t have access to high speed internet nor did many of the college students who were suddenly not able to attend class.”
Recognizing that its 3.0 airchain and gateway not only could be used for all of “the normal stuff a 3.0 channel should do in America,” NPG began to look at its use in education, he says.
“We are now developing lesson plan materials, and we are going to demonstrate livestream lesson plans and encourage people to use this technology,” says DeChant.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Ramping up NextGen TV deployment to fill this gap will be far easier and less expensive than universal deployment of wireless broadband service. “This is shovel-ready today,” says DeChant. “The transition plans are there; the licenses are active in 1.0; and the 3.0 deployment is a light lift compared to deploying other newer distribution technologies.”
Nor is the consumer side of this equation too much of a lift, especially given the emergency funding Congress has made available for education in the wake of the pandemic, says John Lawson, president of Convergence Services Inc. and executive director of the AWARN Alliance.
“Congress passed the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act that allocates $13.5 billion for education. Remote learning is one of the eligible uses of that money,” he says.
Signed into law March 27, the CARES Act makes funds available to states to assist K-12 education impacted by the pandemic. Funds are distributed to states. In turn, state education agencies are to distribute at least 90% of the funds to school districts and public charter schools.
Lawson, whose Convergence Services Inc. is co-producing webinars with NETA May 12 on remote learning and CARES Act funding, describes the funding process as “pretty decentralized,” which means public and commercial broadcasters need to coordinate closely with local school districts.
Encouraging school districts to pay for NextGen TV home gateways to facilitate remote learning in the homes of students isn’t all that farfetched, especially if the devices are inexpensive, he says.
“Many school districts already give away computers to students—even before the pandemic,” says Lawson. “The FCC has a whole lot more money to subsidize rural broadband. They have all sorts of money for that. It may be that you open up new streams of funding for these gateways.”
Joonyoung Park, fellow and chief architect of the HomeCaster at DigiCAP, says the target retail price on Amazon for the HomeCaster gateway will be less than $100. However, in quantities that could reach into the millions if this strategy were employed on a massive scale in the United States, the price of the product would be less, he says.
Park envisions a scenario in which local broadcasters will play an important role in HomeCaster distribution. “I think the right way to distribute HomeCaster to local school districts is in collaboration with local broadcasters because they already have a presence in their local markets,” says Park.
It must be emphasized that this model for delivery of classes to homebound students is far more sophisticated than the approach many public broadcasters traditionally have taken, says Lawson. Rather than blanketing an entire market over the air with a class that may or may not be relevant to individual students at home, classes delivered via 3.0 to home gateways can be school-, class-, subject- and even student-specific because the broadcast standard supports delivery of IP packets for non-real-time (NRT) playback.
“Education requires customization, and this would make the lesson applicable to the right student,” says Lawson. “With 3.0, you have all of these different PLPs [physical layer pipers],” he says. “You could dedicate as many as you want to education and deliver the content overnight so it’s stored on the gateway for the student to use in the morning.”
The back channel students use to submit questions, homework and multiple-choice tests to teachers need not be broadband. Simple dial-up or DSL would suffice, he adds.
Both commercial and public broadcasters have roles to play in developing 3.0 as an educational delivery mechanism. To DeChant, it’s simply a part of being a broadcaster. “We do serve the public, and are licensed to do so.”
To Lawson, this strategy offers the opportunity for greater cooperation in market between commercial and public broadcasters. “Maybe commercial stations that light up 3.0 can do deals with public stations that are still 1.0 to distribute their educational content,” he says.
Regardless of the particulars, 3.0 has an important role to play in the future of education, says NETA’s Simmons. “There is clearly a need for educational materials to get out to students, teachers and districts, and I think 3.0 will provide some amazing opportunities,” she says.
Details about the Remote Learning, NextGen TV & CARES Act Funding webinar and registration are available online. The May 12 webinar begins at 3 p.m. EDT.
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Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.