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NMU brings Upper Peninsula students online

Taylor Wizner

More and more school work is being done online, but some students across the country are falling behind their peers because they don’t have internet at home.

School districts are now coming up with their own workarounds for internet access.

When Korah Hopper used to go on the internet for her homework, it usually ended in frustration.

"We were in the middle and it would just slow down automatically," Hopper says. "Just like randomly stop and you would have to reload or you would have to exit out of the page and redo it."

Hopper is 12 years old and lives in Engadine, a rural logging and mining town in the Upper Peninsula. 

Each day Hopper shared dial-up internet with her five siblings and her dad. She would sometimes have to wait until late at night to start her assignments.

A recent Pew Research study found that 15 percent of students in the U.S. don’t have access to reliable internet at home. Education researchers call it “the homework gap.” They’ve found that students who don’t spend as much time online tend to do worse in school and score lower on standardized tests.

Rutgers University Associate Professor Vikki Katz co-authored a study on “the homework gap” in 2016. She says lower income kids are more likely to be learning basic skills on a computer.

“You know how to open Google Documents and how to type into them as opposed to learning how to create things or develop robotics, which their higher-income peers are doing in many parts of the country,” Katz says.

But she says schools have been on the front lines trying to fill internet access gaps for their students. Some have opened their computer labs early in the morning, while others installed Wi-Fi hotspots on buses.

Northern Michigan University has taken it a step further. NMU has special permission to use a little-known frequency, called the Educational Broadband Service, reserved by the government for educational purposes.

Eric Smith, the director of broadcasting and audio-visual services at NMU, says he first used the radio frequency to bring Wi-Fi to the school's off-campus students. It was so successful that the school expanded it to reach 61 underserved communities across the U.P.

"Our interest is having [community members] be able to access their educational needs so that they can become more productive, better citizens and make them better contributors to their communities," says Smith.

Smith says in the 1960s the government set aside the frequency for schools,  but didn’t have a great plan to regulate it. So in the 90s, the Federal Communications Commission stopped giving out licenses.

Besides NMU, only two school districts in California and one in Virginia also use it to create their own internet networks.

Three months ago the service went live in Engadine. Anyone living within nine miles of Engadine Consolidated School could get high-speed internet for only $20-$35 a month.

Credit Taylor Wizner
Engadine Consolidated Schools partnered with NMU to bring broadband to locals for $20-$35 a month. Before, residents' internet cost at least double that or they didn't have access at all.

Now, Korah says she doesn’t have to wait to do her homework anymore. Having more internet access has helped her with her math skills and essay writing.

"I had to write about books I read like 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and 'Milkweed,'" Hopper says. "So I would look up things I couldn’t remember."

But Hopper's classmate Makayla Avery still doesn’t have internet access at home, so she tries to get her homework done in class.

"You try to work as much as you can and try to do it as fast as you can without being distracted or anything like that," Avery says.

Now, Northern Michigan University wants to bring the service to 54 communities in the U.P. over the next year. Eric Smith says the spectrum is extremely valuable since it recently moved to LTE and 5G technology.

Meanwhile, the FCC is reconsidering how to dole out the radio spectrum. Smith fears a bidding war with private companies, that may not lease out the spectrum at a rate that schools can afford.

"If we lose that building block if that’s not available then it takes away an important tool that educators have to make sure that people receive the education they’re entitled to," Smith says.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.