Eight families in the Taos School District received electronic devices this week that will allow their students to receive school work over airwaves instead of the internet using a technology that could help bridge New Mexico’s digital divide.
Thursday’s distribution of the card deck-sized receivers at Ranchos Elementary School launches phase two of a pilot project that eventually will connect at least 400 families in four New Mexico school districts to a technology called “datacasting.” The goal is to expand educational opportunities for students in remote areas without broadband internet access.
“We’ve learned that no single solution will quickly solve New Mexico’s digital divide, and speed is of the essence,” Public Education Secretary (Designate) Kurt Steinhaus said. “Until fiber optic cables bring broadband internet to every corner of New Mexico, we’re going to need a patchwork of solutions, and it sure looks like datacasting could be one.”
The other districts in the pilot project are Los Lunas, Pojoaque and Silver City. Along with Taos, all are identified as “focus districts” in the Yazzie/Martinez Consolidated Lawsuit over education equity. (Bernalillo and Cuba were invited to participate but declined.) All four districts in the pilot are finalizing their lists of 100 families each who lack broadband internet access sufficient for full educational participation.
The Public Education Department and its partners — New Mexico PBS, CTC Technology & Energy and CLARO Consulting — expect to distribute receivers to all 400 participating families within the next two weeks. Those families will also get hands-on support unique to their needs. The pilot districts may request more receivers if needed once they demonstrate they can successfully deploy to their initial families.
The other 19 focus districts identified in the Martinez-Yazzie ruling (Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Cuba, Española, Gadsden, Gallup-McKinley, Grants-Cibola, Hatch, Jemez Valley, Lake Arthur, Las Cruces, Magdalena, Moriarty-Edgewood, Peñasco, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Tucumcari and Zuni) each will get receivers for 40 families to “test-drive” throughout the 2021-2022 school year. The project has purchased 2,000 receivers in all.
Datacasting uses special transmitters and receivers to send data over existing broadcast airwaves. New Mexico’s pilot project will piggyback educational materials on airwaves controlled by the New Mexico Public Broadcasting System, a key partner in the project. Those signals reach 98% of all New Mexico homes. Inside the home, a receiver will convey the information to the student’s Chromebook or other digital devices.
New Mexico PBS and member station KNME, serving northern and central New Mexico, finished installing and testing the first transmitter in October. The final three transmitters have arrived, and installation and testing are underway now at KNME, KENW in Portales and KRWG in Las Cruces, said Franz Joachim, New Mexico PBS and KNME general manager.
“KNME-TV is excited to be a partner with the Public Education Department in the next generation of educational broadcasting, leveraging the broad accessibility of our television signals to help bridge the digital divide,” Joachim said.
“KRWG Public Media at NMSU is thrilled to participate in this initiative to provide essential data services to underserved students,” said KRWG general manager Adrian Velarde. “It aligns perfectly with our core educational mission and leverages the power of all three public TV stations in New Mexico to support learning throughout the state.”
When fully functional and combined with district-provided hotspots, the datacasting system will allow a two-way exchange of educational materials between teachers and students with no extra work required for teachers. Teachers already use learning management systems like Canvas or Google Classroom to organize educational materials into lessons, assignments and assessments that students with broadband internet can access from anywhere. In the pilot project, a service called EduCast will pluck those materials off the internet for transmission via the public television airwaves, allowing students in homes without high-speed internet to access these materials.
The pilot is funded by $1 million awarded to the Public Education Department by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from the federal government’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, a pandemic relief measure.
The goal of the pilot is to determine whether and under what conditions datacasting can be an appropriate solution for family learning at home.
Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.