Friday Institute Studying Emerging Wireless Broadband Technologies to Reduce Homework Gap in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. —The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) is expanding its partnership with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation with a new project to research, pilot and analyze emerging wireless technologies that can reduce the homework gap, particularly in rural areas. 

“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.”

The Friday Institute will seek solutions that align with goals of other state agencies around issues like rural healthcare and rural economic development, but the primary focus will be on K-12 student access while away from school. Tens of thousands of North Carolinians live in locations that are not served by any internet provider, so this program will specifically target K-12 students who live in those areas.

For over a decade, the Friday Institute has been a trusted partner to NCDPI on issues related to school connectivity and technology infrastructure. The Friday Institute Infrastructure Lab (TIL) is uniquely positioned to complete this project. The TIL team’s expertise includes a mix of network and computer engineering, public policy, education and analytics. 

Beginning in 2015, the TIL team increased its focus on wireless, as it was viewed as the most important networking technology on the horizon. The TIL was instrumental in the execution of NCDPI’s Wi-Fi Expansion Program, which leveraged FCC E-rate funding to ensure every classroom in the state had Wi-Fi. In May 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited a North Carolina high school to celebrate this accomplishment—the first state in the nation to reach this goal.

In 2019, the Friday Institute began a pilot program by deploying the first CBRS (Citizen Broadband Radio Service) base station on NC State University’s campus. This new technology takes advantage of the 3.5 GHz spectrum band, which was recently freed by the Department of Defense and FCC for commercial use. CBRS, which enables organizations to build their own private cellular networks, could be an important component in solving the homework gap.

The TIL has also provided input to the FCC’s formal rulemaking process on many topics related to wireless spectrum, including the 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service and unlicensed use of 6 GHz for Wi-Fi. 

“We’ve already researched several of the emerging technologies that could be used,” said Ray Zeisz, director of the TIL. “Each wireless technology has different capabilities, costs, advantages and disadvantages. A solution that works great in the flat open spaces of Hyde County might not work at all in the mountains of Swain County. 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.”

The research is set to begin immediately. The TIL will receive input from DPI, PSUs and data collected from the Broadband Infrastructure Office statewide survey to identify locations for the pilot program. To take the survey, visit https://NCBroadband.gov/survey or text “internet” to 919-750-0553. 

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation brings together researchers, practitioners and policymakers to lead the transition to next-generation education systems that will prepare students for success in the digital-age world. It conducts research, develops educational resources, provides professional development programs for educators, advocates to improve teaching and learning, and helps inform policymaking. The Friday Institute is a part of the NC State College of Education. Visit fi.ncsu.edu to learn more.