Indiana’s statewide network of public broadcasting television stations is preparing to use its over-the-air tv signals to provide a form of internet service to students who are learning virtually but may not have access to the internet at home.
The Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations group will be one of the first in the country to use datacasting to provide educational materials from teachers into student’s homes.
IPBS says member stations will use their existing broadcast towers.
In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, IPBS Executive Director Mark Newman said the educational content is delivered on the same video signal, or spectrum, as television programming.
“It’s running across the same broadcast spectrum as the stations are using for all of their other outlets,” explained Newman. ”This takes a segment of that broadcast spectrum. And it is made private. It’s targetable. It’s controllable. It’s manageable.”
Newman says the technology is not new. He says emergency services in a community use the same technology, sending encrypted data, when radio and cellular services can be overwhelmed during a crisis or disaster. But it is a first for public broadcasters to use it in this capacity.
“So, while you’re watching TV, on your favorite station with that favorite channel, we’re able to datacast files to student homes,” said Newman.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how the gap in available internet service, especially in rural parts of Indiana, is limiting the use of e-learning and online teaching tools.
“It gives them an opportunity to have their schooling experience and really not miss as much of a beat if they had to drive to the local supermarkets parking lot where a school bus has been parked with a hotspot. That’s just inconvenient. That’s impractical. This gives them the opportunity to be successful,” said Newman.
Households that qualify for the program will use a small antenna and receiver in their home to receive the signal. It will allow students to log onto a browser that simulates traditional internet, giving them access to encrypted data, including educational material and assignments.
IPSB estimates approximately 85,000 Hoosier homes do not have internet access. The network has secured $6.7 million in federal and state grants which will allow IPBS to help 8,200 households.
Newman says it is more affordable than schools using hotspot technology. He says the annual maintenance cost of datacasting for IPBS stations combined is about $205,000.
In comparison, he estimates one small district could spend at least $20,000 each month for hotspot service with a fee that increases with the number of users.
“The annual cost for datacasting for hundreds of districts is matched in 10 months of hotspot cost in one district,” said Newman.
The service will be initially launched in Jennings County in January, which will receive the signal from WTIU-TV in Bloomington.
“Datacasting will enable us to bring our classrooms to about 1,200 students who don’t have Internet access in their homes,” said Teresa Brown, superintendent of the Jennings County School Corp. “It’s a sustainable, cost-effective solution to enable remote learning in the areas of our county where internet connections have always been a challenge. “
Newman is working now to provide datacasting to other schools with similar levels of students that have difficulty accessing online education.
Newman says datacasting won’t replace broadband internet, but it does provide an immediate solution by using existing technology and infrastructure
“PBS began as educational television,” he said. “You might say we’re using technology to get back to our roots.”
Public broadcasters in South Carolina were the first to implement the technology.
Newman explained how topography creates a challenge for the TV signal.