It’s not just Sesame Street that can be sent home right now – it’s the internet, or at least something like that.
In a state that has long struggled with broadband access to some of the most rural homes, efforts to expand New Mexico’s slow internet access are getting some help from television signals and engineering students from Massachusetts.
A team from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute has partnered with the State Department of Education to address digital connectivity issues in New Mexico in a new pilot program that uses broadcast signals to help students study remotely.
To reach the remotest corners of the state, PED launched a datacasting project that uses special transmitters to connect student homes with curated teaching materials to broadcast signals – the same signals that the New Mexico Public Broadcasting System broadcasts to televisions .
The signals work instead of the traditional broadband infrastructure that households typically use to get online. Instead of broadcasting radio signals that bring Elmo to a television screen, the signals carry data from educational applications to students’ computers. Students then send these materials back to their teachers through a district-provided hotspot.
The broadcast signals that datacasting relies on to transmit files, pictures and videos reach 98% of households in New Mexico, according to a PED press release.
Internet access remains an impossible hurdle for families across New Mexico – a result of the diverse topography of the state and the lack of infrastructure and financial resources to connect hard-to-reach areas. During the pandemic, schools resorted to distributing hotspots to families with no reliable connection, although in areas where cellular service remains spotty, these devices do not provide enough bandwidth for students to participate in distance learning.
The program will work with 500 families in the Bernalillo, Cuba, Pojoaque, Silver City and Taos school districts to measure access speeds from both datacasting devices and hotspots.
Joe Martin, one of the mechanical engineering students, told SFR: “For us the overriding goal or the research question is: does a datacasting system improve the lives of the citizens who use it?”
With the devices, the team hopes to determine the required upload and download speeds required to use applications such as Google Classroom or Canvas, which are widely used for distance learning. Another student, Grace Rydout, said the team will be collecting “snapshot” data from households across the state while continuously collecting data on home Internet access to determine how these systems can meet the needs of families.
“The speed test we are doing is also the first time data has been collected, so we hope to use this in combination with the datacasting to get the most of it,” says Rydout.
State Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus from the Ministry of Public Education appeared on Wednesday afternoon for a joint press conference announcing the project.
“I encourage you to challenge the technology,” Steinhaus told the students. “This datacasting may look old-fashioned, so help us figure out how to use it with students we haven’t heard of.”
Steinhaus added that some of the hardest-to-reach students in remote parts of the state will benefit from emerging technology.
The team’s research will mainly focus on the datacasting project. Students want to explore this alternative to connect students beyond traditional broadband infrastructure like fiber optic cables and wireless signals.
This isn’t the first time researchers have worked with schools in New Mexico to measure student access to the home.
Last year, the Santa Fe Public Schools partnered with the Consortium for School Networking to study Internet connectivity at home using data from students’ home devices, and ultimately to publish the Student Home Connectivity Study.
Efforts to eradicate broadband deserts in New Mexico have received much-needed attention during the pandemic. Earlier this year, lawmakers formed Connect New Mexico and the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to oversee and fund broadband development projects across the state. Lawmakers also contributed $ 133 million to broadband expansion projects.
While the members of the council were recently appointed, the position of director of the bureau remains vacant, leaving the state several months behind schedule in this regard, according to the state’s Department of Information Technology’s broadband acceleration plan.