Creative Solutions Connect Students in the Midwest to the Internet

A young girl participates in school from home.

On March 13, students in Fargo, North Dakota completed their final in-person school day of the semester – and possibly the year. Two weeks later, school started up again virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fargo Public School District, like thousands of districts across America, rushed to come up with a viable distance learning plan, all hinging on one critical component: home internet access.

A Quick Solution to Bridge the Digital Divide

“A thousand instructional details needed to be considered and decisions made,” said Fargo Superintendent, Dr. Rupak Ghandi, “and nearly all of them had to be based on the assumption that every student would have access to the Internet at home by the time remote instruction began.”

The school district of Fargo is the second largest in North Dakota and serves more than 11,300 students. Of those students, 32% qualify for free or reduced priced lunch and were likely to live in households that did not subscribe to the internet at home. Like many school administrators in the U.S., Dr. Gandhi and district officials found themselves in a bind as they tried to figure out how to help all students in the district learn from home. Dr. Gandhi knew that many families in his district did not have the financial means to afford internet service, especially in a time when unemployment was rising, and furloughs or reduced working hours are common.

Then, a move by the local internet service provider, Midco, changed everything. The Midco team also knew that a home broadband connection would be critical to a successful virtual semester and recognized the particular challenge for students whose families were struggling in the wake of the pandemic. Almost immediately after the Fargo schools closed their doors, the internet service provider (ISP) announced that it would be providing free internet access to eligible low-income families through June 2020 so that kids could complete their school year online. “One of the first changes that Midco made at the onset of the pandemic was to ensure that we were using all the forms of connectivity in our power to connect people,” said Justin Forde, Midco Senior Director of Government Relations. Midco quickly got to work, with a COVID-19 health and safety plan in place, and prioritized installations for those students without connectivity in their homes.

The free service was a game-changer for Fargo schools and students. “The announcement by Midco to allow homes to sign up for free internet for the remainder of the school year came at exactly the right time to supply the key resource we needed to have in place to make our Distance Learning Plan a reality,” Dr. Gandhi wrote in a public thank you letter to the ISP.

Collaboration Helps All Students Learn from Home

With the new school year now underway and pandemic challenges continuing, Midco and the Fargo school district continue to work together to ensure that all students have the connectivity they need to learn from home while the pandemic continues. Under the Midco Internet Basics School Program, schools like Fargo are able to help eligible low-income students continue to gain free access to high-speed broadband. As part of the program, Midco and the school district partner to identify unconnected and eligible students and the school pays a heavily discounted internet service rate for each student.

Midco is committed to providing low-cost options for eligible low-income families beyond the Midco Internet Basics School Program, through other broadband adoption programs, including the Federal Lifeline Program and Midco Internet Basics. The ISP has also joined the K-12 Bridge to Broadband Initiative, a national collaborative effort with the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway and other U.S. cable broadband providers.

A Connectivity Option for Rural Areas

Midco’s work to connect students goes beyond urban areas like Fargo. The ISP knew that finding a solution to connect students in rural areas of its footprint, which covers Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as the Dakotas, was also critical.  So, the ISP looked to expand its fixed wireless solution as well.

Midco had begun to offer fixed wireless in 2018 in rural areas where fiber networks are difficult and cost prohibitive to deploy. The ISP’s fixed wireless solution has helped to cover the last mile to those students and families living in areas covered by wilderness, farmland, granite fields, or limestone cliffs. “Some of those families didn’t know they could get a high-speed connection when schools closed, especially when the pandemic first hit in March and we still had frozen ground in a lot of places,” said Forde. “That was exciting to be able to hook up those folks who didn’t think a high-speed internet connection was ever possible.”

With challenging geography across the ISP’s footprint, Forde explained that offering fixed wireless has allowed students to connect even in very rural areas that extend to 10 miles away from a town’s center.

Together, the commitments of both school district and internet service providers have ensured that all students, regardless of their family’s financial situation or hardship brought about by the pandemic, could have the reliable, high-speed internet connection they needed to keep learning.

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Thanks to distance learning partnerships , thousands of families across the midwest have been able to get connected to the internet. But across the country, thousands more continue to struggle in education, employment, and daily life without dependable broadband. Sign up to stay up-to-date on distance learning initiatives and join our efforts to provide quality connectivity for Americans in rural areas, sign our petition.