Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 1

Starting a multi-part series of posts about some of the issues around broadband access in rural areas and education. I've been working for several years with a variety of rural broadband initiatives including the Kanabec Broadband Initiative (KBI) and the East Central Broadband Initiative (ECBI). These groups, and others like them, continue to educate the general public about the importance of broadband, and work to bring more broadband options and affordability to rural parts of Minnesota.

It is no secret that with the proliferation of mobile devices, 1-1 initiatives and migration to cloud based services for productivity and curriculum resources, schools rely on broadband more than ever, and there is no looking back. Unfortunately, many of our students, especially those living in rural areas outside of communities, do not have adequate, affordable broadband access. This puts them at an immediate disadvantage in the new technology-laden education environment. We have a new divide to conquer. Of course, the lack of quality, affordable access in rural areas poses a number of problems from economic development to quality of life to healthcare, to name a few. My focus, however, continues to be on education.

To that end, I have participated in some community meetings recently, arranged by MN Senator Matt Schmit and sponsored by various community organizations. Senator Schmit has taken on the issue of rural broadband and spent time in November and January touring the state to hear about the needs of rural Minnesotans. I had the opportunity to attend two of the meetings in Mora and North Branch to represent the schools in the area. In both cases, I shared some of the initiatives going on in area schools and talked about how schools are limited to what they can expect from students using technology outside of the school buildings. Our schools have very high speed access and do not have speed or data usage caps. I shared that this has changed the way schools talk about technology. Our schools do not talk about what they can't do (because of low bandwidth), they talk about what they CAN do. Sadly, that is not the case with many families living in rural areas. With slow speeds, data caps and expensive overage charges, these families still talk about what they CAN'T do.

I will bring this message to the Border to Border Broadband conference on February 4th and 5th in St. Paul. Senator Schmit has invited me to participate with him on a panel to share the messages he heard around the state during his listening tour. I invite anyone interested in the rural broadband divide to attend this conference supported by the Blandin Foundation.

Up Next: I'll share some of the comments heard from the meetings around the idea of "how much bandwidth (or speed) is enough."

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