Online Education and Covid-19

Duolingo flies

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are suddenly over a billion kids worldwide out of school. Online education services are trying to respond to the need.

Khan Academy, the free online suite of K-12 courses, says that traffic is up over 50% and climbing. Prior to the pandemic, the site already served 18 million students in 42 countries with 10,000 classes in 42 languages.

Founder Sal Khan is running webinars for teachers turning to Khan Academy for assistance in leading online classrooms.

Indian education company Byju’s has made all curricular materials free for the month of April. The firm saw a sudden 60% jump in traffic within seven days of the new policy.

Duolingo, the online language learning service, is also reporting a surge in usage of its various offerings. English proficiency testing is up 200%. Active users in China are up 100%.

The surge in online education activity highlights the need for connectivity for students. Around two million schools currently lack any connectivity, a situation which needs to change in the near future.

Update on Project Kuiper

Soon to link schools?

Project Kuiper is Amazon’s initiative to build a low-earth orbit satellite constellation to provide global broadband services. Announced in April 2019, Project Kuiper plans to deploy over 3,000 satellites.

Project Kuiper joins Starlink and OneWeb as one of the three most significant satellite broadband initiatives. Starlink has launched 360 satellites to date. OneWeb has launched 74 – although is rumored to be exploring bankruptcy protection. Project Kuiper to date has launched zero satellites, although given that Amazon and Jeff Bezos have significant resources, and that another of Bezos’ companies, Blue Origin, builds rockets, Project Kuiper is taken seriously.

It is also conceivable that if OneWeb enters bankruptcy, Amazon could purchase some or all of its assets. Amazon did hire previously the senior management from Starlink which had been let go in a SpaceX management shakeup.

Project Kuiper provides an interesting complement to other Amazon services. AWS already relies heavily on linking customers to Amazon servers. Amazon has programs supporting land-based broadband. Amazon also has multiple programs supporting schools, including Amazon Smile.

Blue Origin’s next generation rocket, called New Glenn, is scheduled to first launch in 2021.

Amazon is currently advertising 170 job openings for Project Kuiper, so the initiative is clearly a high priority for Amazon.

Innovative Funding

Extending the internet to schools worldwide takes resources (the Broadband Commission estimates internet extension just in Africa to be $109 billion over a decade).

Funding sources will be varied, involving governments, private industry, multilaterals, bilaterals, and philanthropies.

One organization exploring innovative funding models is UNESCO, which announced in 2019 a new cryptocurrency fund to receive, hold and distribute cryptocurrencies to partners. The fund received its first donation of Ethereum and Bitcoin valued at approximately $25,000 from the Ethereum Foundation. The funds reportedly will support Project Connect and internet connectivity for schools.

Loon Receives Approval to Operate in Kenya

Loon, the broadband balloon operator, has signed agreements in 2018 with Kenyan authorities to provide broadband services in rural Kenya. The company has now received formal approval to begin operations.

Services won’t begin immediately. Loon will be launching balloons from the US to travel to Kenya, a process that can take several weeks. Covid-19 has also slowed operations both in the US and Kenya.

Nonetheless programs are moving forward. Loon has partnered with Kenya Telkom. Soon users in rural areas of Kenya will see a Kenya Telkom 4G signal on their phone, although their handset will actually be communicating with Loon balloons in the stratosphere.

Loon believes that with a successful rollout in Kenya, the company will be able to quickly scale to many other markets in Africa. Loon also recently began efforts in South America, with services underway in rural Peru.

Connecting Africa Through Broadband

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The countries with lowest broadband penetration globally are in sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of millions of people across the continent have never heard of the internet.

The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development issued a landmark report in October 2019 titled “Connecting Africa Through Broadband. The report provides a roadmap of how to double broadband access by 2021 and achieve universal access by 2030.

The strategy includes a comprehensive approach involving policy, infrastructure, content, training, and other components.

The strategy is appropriately ambitious — and resource-intensive. Investment required by international, local, and private sector players is estimated at $109 billion over ten years.

The report includes relatively little discussion of broadband services provided by emerging LEO satellite networks, despite the fact that OneWeb is listed as an official consultative member. Neither SpaceX nor Starlink are mentioned anywhere in the report. Loon is also not mentioned, despite having initial programs underway in rural Kenya.

The report does talk extensively about the importance of connecting schools, bringing educational and training resources to new communities.

Broadband for Africa has been a dream for many years. The Broadband Commission report sensibly describes how to make that happen. New technologies may speed the process.

OneWeb and Schools

OneWeb is the satellite communications firm seeking to provide broadband from space. OneWeb is currently in the process of launching a low earth orbit constellation 650 satellites. As of March 2020 they have launched an initial 74 satellites.

OneWeb’s goal is to connect “everyone, everywhere”. The company is particularly motivated to connect schools worldwide. The company, for example, has chosen six schools globally to receive free internet (Alaska, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda, Ecuador and Honduras). OneWeb also launched a program called #Launchpad to provide curricular materials and inspiration to kids interested in space.

OneWeb’s social mission is traceable to its founder, Greg Wyler. After working in rural Africa, Greg founded O3B Networks (acquired by SES) to launch a network of medium earth orbit satellites to provide global broadband services. Wyler subsequently founded OneWeb, and also provided funding for Project Connect, which is attempting to map every school on the planet.

OneWeb’s ambitions for social good are enormous, but unfortunately so are its cashflow needs. A challenging economic environment as well as competition from SpaceX and Amazon may create challenges moving forward. Ideally OneWeb will succeed in building a successful business that helps connect the next million schools.

SpaceX Receives Permission for One Million Terminals

SpaceX Starlink program has launched 362 satellites to date. Starlink anticipates bi-monthly launches of 60 satellites each (at least before slowdowns due to the novel coronavirus). Elon Musk has claimed that initial services can begin in the US with 400 satellites, and global services with 800 satellites.

SpaceX has now received FCC approval to deploy up to one million user terminals to connect to the Starlink constellation. Individual terminals, about 19 inches wide, will resemble (according to Musk) at “UFO on a stick.” SpaceX intends to make the terminals “plug and play”.

The FCC application specifies that initial end users are anticipated to be individuals, libraries, schools, etc. “throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” 

Pricing for both the terminals and monthly service are still not disclosed.

Loon, Schools, Peru

Loon is the Alphabet company that uses high-altitude balloons to provide internet connectivity in remote areas. Over the past decade Loon balloons have logged over one million hours of flight time.

Loon is currently partnering with Internet Para Todos Peru to bring internet connectivity to 200,000 people in the remote Loreto region of the country. Loon has extensive experience with partners in Peru: initial testing began, in 2014, Loon provided emergency services during severe flooding in 2017, and again provided services following a 2019 earthquake.

Based on the population soon to be served in Loreto, there are likely several hundred schools in the region that will be accessing internet services for the first time.

Peru represents the second country, following Kenya, in which Loon is partnering with mobile operators to extend connectivity.

How Many Schools in the World Lack Internet?

The race is on to connect every school in the world to the internet. But how many schools is that?

The quick answer: nobody really knows. Data about number and type of schools in many countries are limited.

We can make rough estimates, however, extrapolating from data we do have.

In the US, in 2016 there were 98,277 public schools and 34,576 private schools, totaling 132,853 schools K-12. US population in 2016 was 323 million, or approximately one school for every 2,431 citizens. Using this ratio with a current global population of 7.7 billion, this suggests total schools worldwide in the neighborhood of 3.2 million.

This global figure might be too high: rich countries can afford schools more easily than developing countries. On the other hand developing country schools tend to be smaller in size on average, and median age in developing countries is much lower, so the figure might be too low.

GIGA has compiled detailed data on a number of countries. For example, the GIGA database shows Colombia, a middle-income country, to have 50,175 schools, or approximately one school per 1000 citizens. This ratio would suggest global schools totaling 7.7 million.

India in 2012 reportedly had 1.3 million schools, for a ratio of about one school per 1000 citizens. This ratio suggests global schools totaling 7.7 million.

China in 2014 reportedly had 514,000 schools, for a ratio of about one school per 2,600 citizens, suggesting global schools totaling about 3 million.

Triangulating from these figures, total number of schools worldwide is likely between 4 and 7 million. It seems reasonable to say conservatively that there are at least 5 million schools worldwide.

What percentage of those schools have internet access? In developed countries the percentage is over 90%. In middle income countries such as Colombia it is about half. In the poorest countries it is minimal. In 2019 overall broadband penetration was approximately 51% globally, according to the UN Broadband Commission.

Assuming urban schools are both larger and more likely to have broadband connectivity than rural schools, we can conservatively estimate about 40% of schools still lack connectivity. That is about two million schools.

Let’s work to connect the next million schools!


School visualization in Sierra Leone

GIGA (formerly “Project Connect”) is a joint initiative of UNICEF and ITU with the ambition to connect every school in the planet to the internet. GIGA focuses on building a database of all schools, including information about location, size, type, and connectivity.

Project Connect was founded through an investment by Greg Wyler, the telecommunications and satellite entrepreneur who recognized that the goal of wiring schools would be hampered by lack of data about schools themselves. If countries don’t know where all schools are located – which is often true – then how can the schools be connected?

A working prototype of GIGA’s database visualization, including detailed data for a number of countries, can be found here.

In October 2019 Wired Magazine highlighted GIGA, as well as its leaders Chris Fabian and Sunita Grote, in its feature WIRED25: Stories of People Who are Racing to Save Us.

A number of other country initiatives are coordinating with GIGA. One notable example is the Digital Public Goods Alliance, supported by the Norwegian Government, which gathers open source technologies and resources of use to developing countries.