It’s not just Sesame Street that can be broadcast into homes now—it’s the internet, or, something that resembles it, anyway.
In a state that has long struggled to hook up some of the most rural homes to broadband connections, efforts to ramp up New Mexico’s lagging internet access are receiving some help from television signals and Massachusetts engineering students.
A team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute has partnered with the state Public Education Department to address digital connectivity issues in New Mexico on a new pilot program that uses broadcasting signals to help students learn remotely.
To reach the farthest corners of the state, PED launched a datacasting project that uses special transmitters to connect students’ homes to curated educational materials with broadcast signals—the same signals that transmit New Mexico Public Broadcasting System to TVs.
The signals work in lieu of traditional broadband infrastructure that homes typically use to get online. Instead of sending broadcasting signals that bring Elmo to a TV screen, the signals carry data from educational applications to students’ computers. Students will then send those materials back to their teachers using a hotspot provided by the district.
The broadcast signals that datacasting relies on to transmit files, images and videos reaches 98% of homes in New Mexico, according to a PED news release.
For families across New Mexico, internet access remains an impossible hurdle—a consequence of the state’s diverse topography and a lack of infrastructure and funding to connect hard-to-reach areas. During the pandemic, schools resorted to distributing hotspots to families without a reliable connection, though in areas where cellular service remains spotty those devices don’t provide sufficient bandwidth for students to participate in remote learning.
The program will work with 500 families in Bernalillo, Cuba, Pojoaque, Silver City and Taos school districts to measure access speeds of both the datacasting devices and hotspots.
Joe Martin, one of the mechanical engineering students, tells SFR, “For us the overarching goal or research question is: Does a datacasting system improve the lives of the citizens using it?”
Using the devices, the team hopes to determine the necessary upload and download speeds needed to use applications such as Google Classroom or Canvas, which are commonly used for remote learning. Grace Rydout, another of the students, explains that the team will collect “snapshot” data from homes across the state while simultaneously collecting continuous data on home internet access to help determine how these systems can serve families’ needs.
“The speed test portion that we’re doing is also the first time that data has been collected, so we hope to use that in combination with the datacasting to make it the best it can be,” Rydout says.
Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus of the Public Education Department turned up for a joint news conference announcing the project Wednesday afternoon.
“I encourage you to challenge the technology,” Steinhaus told the students. “This datacasting might look old school, so help us figure out how that can be used with students that we haven’t heard from.”
Steinhaus added that some of the hardest-to-reach students in remote parts of the state will benefit from the emerging technology.
The team’s research will focus primarily on the datacasting project. The students want to explore this alternative to connect students beyond traditional broadband infrastructure such as fiber cables and wireless signals.
This isn’t the first time researchers have worked with New Mexico schools to measure students’ access at home.
Last year, Santa Fe Public Schools partnered with the Consortium for School Networking to investigate home internet connectivity using data from students’ home devices, eventually publishing the Student Home Connectivity Study.
Efforts to eliminate broadband deserts in New Mexico gained much needed attention during the pandemic. Earlier in the year, lawmakers created Connect New Mexico and the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to oversee and fund broadband development projects around the state. The Legislature also contributed $133 million toward broadband expansion projects.
While the council’s members were recently named, the office’s director position remains vacant, leaving the state several months behind schedule in that respect, according to the state’s Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Acceleration Plan.