Beth Holland: Barriers, Challenges, and Empathy in Fostering Broadband Access (Part 1 of 2)

Paul Signorelli

— Feb 11, 2021

A story that has become painfully familiar as the coronavirus pandemic has raged around us: without adequate Internet access, we are severely limited in our ability to work and learn effectively. A story that is not so obvious: any successful effort to create universal broadband access throughout the United States is going to have to be accompanied by efforts to foster digital equity and digital inclusion in numerous ways—a conclusion that became more clear to me than ever before as I conducted an online interview recently, for the ShapingEDU blog, with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator and Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking). 

Beth Holland
Beth Holland

“Simply getting [universal broadband] access does not solve the problem [of digital equity],” she observed during a conversation that weaved back and forth between focusing on the barriers we face to creating universal broadband access and the challenges we face in trying to equitably use that access to support work and learning. “It’s going to continue to morph as technologies change.” 

An often-overlooked theme that emerged overall was how important empathy is going to be in any successful effort to provide universal broadband access. Both of us acknowledged, as we were looking at who has access and who doesn’t—as well as how that access is used in work and learning environments—that fostering empathy for those without access and support can be a critically important part of any effort to extend access and nurture equity and inclusion. 

“I am going to admit my privilege here,” she said. “Where I am geographically located, I have full cell service and access to high-speed Internet. I’ve had a laptop, plus numerous other devices, since the late 1990s. However, I think the real wakeup call has happened in a few different instances. First, my husband and I like to do a lot of hiking. When we drive places, I’ve become incredibly attuned to whether or not we have cell service—not because I want to be online, but because I’m trying to get a sense of the magnitude of the disparity of access in a tangible way. We drove from Salt Lake City to Escalante National Park a few years ago, and I counted miles between cell signals and any place of business that might possibly offer Wi-Fi to kids. It made me realize how some possible solutions to the digital divide really aren’t feasible. Last fall, we were driving in rural New Hampshire with no signal. At one point, a Dollar Store was the only major business, and it was about 30 minutes to find a gas station. I saw satellite dishes in yards, so I am guessing there was no cable. I was thinking about conditions of schools and the feasibility of getting access. It made me very aware of the need for policymakers to take a ride and recognize the challenge that so many are facing right now to get access.” 

An updated rallying cry for those without inadequate access might, in fact, be “take a ride with us” rather than “walk in our boots,” for the act of taking that ride—as Holland and other colleagues have done—hammers home the impact inadequate broadband access has on people not only distant from us but in our own geographical backyards.

ShapingEDU universal broadband initiative image

“A few years ago, I was doing research in pre-schools as part of my post-doc. I got a text message on my phone that there was a new message in the medical portal from my doctor. The portal didn’t work on a mobile device, so I logged in when I got home (privileges #1-3: cell signal, home Internet, and a computer). Apparently, I was at high-risk for measles, and there were ongoing outbreaks at the time. I could schedule an appointment for a blood test to see if my vaccine was still good. Turns out that it wasn’t, and I needed a new vaccine from CVS. Everything was coordinated through the portal and took no time, but what about the person who didn’t know to sign up for the portal, who couldn’t access it, and who might not have the digital-literacy skills to navigate it? Understanding all of this has made me hyperaware of the digital-equity challenges—not just in terms of physical access, but also the necessary skills behind having that access.”

First, of course, we need to work together at the big, dreamy level our predecessors did they they created a national postal service to meet communication needs; when they worked to create a telephone system that further enhanced our ability to engage in effective communication; and when they united at the national level to provide electricity throughout the entire country. That’s where the organizers of the ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative has been focusing since its inception in May 2020 to connect and support existing groups and interested individuals.

Some of the barriers that are easily identifiable include cost, geography, and competing/conflicting interests among some key stakeholders.

“I think the first part is to be really aware of geography and whether or not infrastructure is possible,” Holland said. “In urban/suburban areas where the barrier is more often cost, then it’s a matter of creating affordable high-speed options. (There are lots of complaints that low-cost broadband isn’t enough bandwidth to do anything meaningful.) Solutions here could be allowing E-Rate to offset the cost for qualifying families, or working with housing authorities, communities, and anchor institutions to create more affordable solutions. A great example is Boulder Valley, in Colorado. The district created a public-private partnership with a local ISP. The company put towers on top of the schools to broadcast Internet, and families in need could then get access for free. There’s a profit-sharing agreement as well.

“It gets trickier when the geography comes into play. In a blog post [describing the Boulder Valley project], a district in upstate New York [is mentioned because it] created a “neighbor-to-neighbor” network to connect kids. The ISP said that they could not afford to run cable to many houses because they are so far apart from each other. Instead, the district got a grant to find houses with connections and then put antennas on top of barns/grain silos/roofs. They could then broadcast Wi-Fi for up to five miles from one house to another. 

“Hotspots can be any option when there is cell service, and some districts such as Ector County in Texas have started experimenting with satellite connections for really rural locations. 

“Finally, some districts have come up with ways to create their own LTE/5G networks. They install towers around the community and can then provide Internet to their families. Michigan has a big project in partnership with Northern Michigan University and the surrounding K-12 districts. Green Bay, Wisconsin did this, and there are others,” she noted.

Another barrier to be overcome is our view of what Internet service actually is—a commodity, a service, a public good, or something else: “Currently, internet is considered a service and not a utility. Therefore, that’s how it’s regulated. There really isn’t the financial incentive or pressure to run broadband to every community—especially the hard-to-reach ones. There are some advocates calling for internet to become a utility so that the country can be wired in a fashion similar to the electrification project in the 1930s. Finally, and this is tied to regulation, we really have to remember cost. Even low-cost options could be too much for a family to afford. The argument can be made for internet to be considered as part of the life-line program that ensures phone access as a matter of public safety…. Nationally, there needs to be policy changes to make broadband access seen as a public good—like electricity or water. There also needs to be funding to support both school and home access for students.”

Once we do overcome those barriers and move steadily closer to examining the challenges of inclusion and equity, we begin to tackle some of the related issues requiring our attention—as we’ll see in the second of these two interrelated articles.

N.B. – 1)  For more information about the Connecting for Work and Learning initiative or to become involved, please visit the project page on the ShapingEDU website or contact organizing committee members. 2) For a lightly-edited transcript of Paul’s interview with Holland, please visit his Building Creative Bridges blog.

Paul Signorelli

Paul Signorelli, one of several contributors to the Reshaping Learning blog, served as one of three ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence from July 2020-June 2021. He also blogs at Building Creative Bridges and can be reached at