New Mexico sees TV technology as one fix to divide the internet from kindergarten through high school
Santa Fe, New Mexico Internet problems continue to slow many students in the US state of New Mexico, but a pilot project using television signals to transmit computer files may help.
On Thursday, state public education officials distributed devices to eight families in Taos City that allow schools to send them digital files over television. Card deck-sized boxes allow digital TV receivers to communicate with computers using a technology called data broadcasting.
Many rural areas of New Mexico are too far from Internet infrastructure such as fiber cables and cell towers but get television reception.
In October, New Mexico PBS’s local broadcasters finished testing the technology to ensure it could allocate and dedicate bandwidth that wasn’t taken up by TV broadcasters to stream downloadable digital files.
The pilot program in Taos is based on a broadcast from Northern New Mexico’s KNME network, while two others plan to roll out beta programs in Silver City and Portales.
Distance learning during the pandemic has highlighted the digital divide for New Mexico students, as many of them have had to learn using paper packages while their peers can participate in virtual lessons via video chat.
Even as schools return to offering in-person classes, inequality continues online after term is over when students do their homework, and for students who are quarantined over virus fears.
Even when families are in internet coverage areas, this is not always enough for the whole family.
“It’s very slow and I have a lot of students,” said Ofelia Muñoz, a mother of four in Ranchos de Taos who has a monthly cable internet subscription. “It’s bad when they have to do their homework.”
One of her children is a college student, who takes most of his lessons online, and will not be contacted by broadcast television. But if his younger siblings can access a virtual library of school materials through the new device, it will reduce the overall burden on their bandwidth.
“It’s easier for them to work at the same time,” she said.
New Mexico is not the first country to try sending data. Some schools in South Carolina were using it last year.
There are limitations to technology that will not allow it to replace the Internet. First, data is currently sent one way and will not allow students to send data back to schools. This means no video chats with teachers or access to email.
“Until fiber-optic cables bring broadband internet to every corner of New Mexico, we will need a variety of solutions, and it certainly looks like data transmission could be one of the solutions,” New Mexico Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said.
Earlier this week, Gov. Michael Logan Grishaman appointed a chancellor to the newly formed State Office of Broadband. A deputy representing the chancellor at the meeting said that in an optimistic scenario, it would take three years for all New Mexico residents to have access to high-speed Internet.
The pandemic has left education officials around the world striving to make distance learning possible, often in areas with limited or no internet access. Some countries – including Mexico and Thailand – broadcast lessons on public television channels but have not established methods for transferring files.
About 131 million children globally have missed three-quarters of their in-person education since March 2020, UNICEF said, and about 77 million of them have missed almost all of them.
Atanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Reporting for America’s Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report on issues that haven’t been covered. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
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