ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A quarter of rural Americans don’t have access to the Internet. Northern Michigan University in the state’s Upper Peninsula has found a unique way to help with that. It’s tapping into a government-owned radio frequency to deliver high-speed Internet to some of those people. From Interlochen Public Radio, Taylor Wizner reports.
TAYLOR WIZNER, BYLINE: Korah Hopper is a sandy-blonde-haired 12-year-old who loves sports and playing the saxophone. When she used to try to go online, it was frustrating.
KORAH HOPPER: We were in the middle, and it would, like, just slow down automatically – just, like, randomly stop and have to, like, reload, or you’d have to exit out of the page and redo it.
WIZNER: Hopper lives in Engadine, a small town of 900, surrounded by forests and located on the southern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For years, Hopper shared dial-up Internet with her five siblings and her dad. But now she has high-speed Internet, thanks to a little-known public resource that’s sitting unused in vast rural parts of the country. It’s called the Educational Broadband Spectrum, and it’s controlled by the federal government and reserved for educational use, but most schools lease it to private companies like Sprint Wireless.
Eric Smith, who runs the broadband program there, says he first used the radio spectrum to bring Wi-Fi to its off-campus students, and then it blossomed to 61 underserved communities all across the UP.
ERIC SMITH: Our interest is in having them be able to access their educational needs so that they can become more productive, better citizens and make them better contributors to their communities.
WIZNER: Smith says, in the ’60s, the government set aside the frequency for schools, but didn’t have a great plan to regulate it. So in the ’90s, the FCC stopped giving it away. Besides NMU, only two school districts in California and one in Virginia also use it to create their own Internet networks.
Fast forward to three months ago when it went live in the tiny town of Engadine. That meant anyone living within nine miles of the local school got Internet service for only $20 to $35 a month. Engadine Schools Superintendent Angie McArthur says that’s a big deal because before, Internet service could cost nearly double that.
ANGIE MCARTHUR: Our student body is about – we have about 65% percent who qualify for free and reduced meals, so spending a large amount of a monthly income doesn’t work.
WIZNER: For her, it’s about teaching her kids it’s a big world.
MCARTHUR: We can sometimes be isolated. And so to find ways to expand our students’ knowledge – the world is bigger than Engadine.
WIZNER: Korah Hopper says having high-speed Internet means she doesn’t have to wait hours to do her homework anymore. And that means she can upload her saxophone practice in record time.
KORAH: It used to take people four hours to – for them to upload it. Now it takes them, like, maybe a half an hour to an hour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAXOPHONE PLAYING)
WIZNER: Now the university wants to bring the service to 54 communities over the next year. Meanwhile, the FCC is reconsidering how to dole out the radio spectrum. And that makes Eric Smith a bit nervous. He fears a bidding war with private companies who may not lease out the spectrum at a rate schools can afford.
SMITH: 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.
WIZNER: A tool that can bring online learning to students no matter where they live. For NPR News, I’m Taylor Wizner.