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To Help Rural Kids Do Their Homework, a Virginia County Is Using Secret Wireless Spectrum

When telecoms won’t fix up your students’ broadband, how about beaming your school’s to nearby homes?

Millions of Americans lack Internet access. But some of those most affected by being on the wrong side of the digital divide are children, who risk being left behind at school because their classmates can all read and research any topic at will when they get home.

As we’ve explained in the past, there are some potential solutions to the problem in large metropolitan areas, especially when it’s about money. Internet service providers and city authorities can, for instance, offer discounts to poor families. But in rural areas where Internet infrastructure hasn’t been built out, it’s a far harder issue to surmount.

The trouble for those living in more remote areas is that the numbers don’t stack up for telecom and cable companies: the cost of hardware and installation can’t be paid off by the small number of users at the end of the cables. It’s not surprising, then, that many communities have opted to go it alone, even slinging fiber along electrical lines installed decades ago.

Now, though, Wired reports that schools in Albemarle County, Virginia, are taking an alternative approach. In order to ensure that every kid is able to use the Internet to aid their studies, the district is using a relatively unknown—and underused—slice of spectrum that was allocated specifically for educational use.

The county is using that spectrum to transfer data between its schools and base stations situated at the top of nearby hills and mountains. From there, it’s possible to provide wireless broadband to houses that aren’t hooked up with a hardwired Internet connection, allowing special routers inside homes to provide Internet connections only to school-provided devices. 

So far one base station is up and running, and another three are planned. Wired does a nice job of explaining the complexities of the rollout, as well as describing the troubles that the educational spectrum slice has faced since it was allocated.

It’s worth pointing out that Albemarle County is among the wealthiest counties in the U.S., so it’s unlikely to be easy to replicate in less well-off rural areas right now. But it does at least offer a glimmer of hope for the homework of future generations.

(Read more: Wired, “Locally Owned Internet Is an Antidote for the Digital Divide,” “The Unacceptable Persistence of the Digital Divide,” “The Next President Will Inherit America’s Embarrassing Digital Divide”)

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