Satellite Broadband Is Expanding. Can That Reduce the Digital Divide?

School Infrastructure

Satellite Broadband Is Expanding. Can That Reduce the Digital Divide?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Feb 22, 2022

Satellite Broadband Is Expanding. Can That Reduce the Digital Divide?

A satellite launch expected later this year could expand the availability of high speed internet for the nation’s students.

The launch of ViaSat-3, a trio of ultra high capacity GEO satellites, is part of ViaSat's ambition to create a global network of high-capacity internet. Each of the satellites will offer more than one terabyte per second of total network output, a thousand times the capacity of the company's first generation satellites, which the company says will allow educators and students across the country to connect “significantly” better.

The program was first announced in 2016, and the launch is expected this summer—though it was delayed early this year because of a lack of critical workers. But if all stays on track, the company expects to start offering satellite internet service at the end of this year, and to add additional coverage with two more satellite launches in six month intervals.

The satellites will be part of the future of internet access, but using them in education will require some creativity, Johannes Bauer, chair of the Quello Center at Michigan State University, says.

Geostationary satellites can expand coverage area and cost-effectiveness, but there are some downsides that will likely limit their usefulness in education settings or would at least require adaptations in how we deliver education, he says. Notably, for technical reasons, these types of satellites are great for providing a high-volume one-way signal, but they have limitations when providing two-way individual connectivity, for example, Bauer argues.

During the pandemic, broadband access became more pressing than ever for education, as schools and colleges suddenly shifted to mostly teaching online. And that sudden shift exposed inequities in who has access to broadband.

“Today's teaching really necessitates broadband access, and kids who don't have that are not only at a serious disadvantage, but also are at risk of just giving up,” says Matt Hiefield, a teacher and curriculum developer at Beaverton School District in Oregon.

For most places in America, the gap in access appears to be largely in the home. Blair Levin, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, formerly of the Federal Communications Commission, says that the government has effectively connected schools to what they need for internet access, leaving homes the next frontier of the digital divide in education.

Although the digital divide affects 15 to 16 million students across the U.S., it’s most prevalent effects are among marginalized communities, especially in Southern rural states. And access for rural areas is less built out than urban ones.

A lot of the most vulnerable communities, Hiefield says, aren’t able to take advantage of companies offering internet for a low fee, either because they move often or they’re worried about giving away personal information because of concerns about immigration status.

“Virtual learning over the past year or so has really exposed a lot of the inequities that exist for a lot of our families, a lot of our teachers,” says Patricia Brown, an educator and an edtech consultant from St. Louis. “I would love to see a lot more organizations partnering with schools and companies to be able to provide resources for education,” she says.

Part of the Solution

Satellite broadband could be an important piece of improving access, though, some experts say.

“I would say the satellite is great, and it is going to be a boon,” says Pierrette Renée Dagg, director of communications for the nonprofit Merit Network.

Under Secretary for Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small adds that there are still some areas in the country, particularly distant and rural areas, that could use more access for their schools as well. Nowhere will we see more educational impact from broadband expansion than in K-12 in those areas, she says.

Hiefield, of the Beaverton School District, says his dream would be that any kid who walks into his school district would be issued a Chromebook, and that wherever they are with that Chromebook, they can open it up and have internet.

"I really think that students shouldn't have to struggle to figure out how to be successful," he says.

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