North Caroline State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation is partnering with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) on a new project to research, pilot, and analyze emerging wireless technologies that can close the homework gap, particularly in rural areas.

As schools have had to shift to distance and hybrid learning to stem the spread of COVID-19, the broadband divide has become more impactful. A bandaid solution employed by many localities is the use of cellular hotspots. While these devices may work in the short term, more permanent solutions are needed.

“Cellular hotspots are great assets under the right circumstances to meet immediate needs, but ​different technologies ​that create permanent solutions ​are needed to ensure that ​all students,​ especially those who don’t live near a tower​, can fully ​participate ​in remote learning,” said Jeff Sural, director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, a key partner of the Friday Institute. “Projects like this one will help identify those long-term solutions and permanently create more equitable access to high-speed internet ​and educational opportunities in our state.”

While emerging wireless broadband technologies would have wide-ranging impacts on both urban and rural residents, the new project is primarily focused on rural K-12 students. The new project has its roots in a project that began last year. In 2019, the Friday Institute launched a pilot program deploying the first Citizen Broadband Radio Service base station on NC State University’s campus. The technology, which uses 3.5 GHz spectrum band made available for commercial use by the Department of Defense and Federal Communications Commission, allows organizations to build their own private cellular networks. The Institute said this ability “could be an important component in solving the homework gap.”

“We’ve already researched several of the emerging technologies that could be used,” said Ray Zeisz, director of the Friday Institute Infrastructure Lab. “Each wireless technology has different capabilities, costs, advantages, and disadvantages … Our goal is to work with rural public school units (PSUs) to target the hardest-to-reach spots and measure the real-world performance. From there, we can make recommendations and help PSUs, local governments, and the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office match service providers with students in need of internet access. There is no magical solution, and we will need to consider an array of options.”

A press release said that research will begin immediately. The Friday Institute will rely on input from NCDPI, PSUs, and data collected from the Broadband Infrastructure Office statewide survey to identify locations for the pilot program.

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