Leverage the Guard (or Reserves) to Resolve the Broadband Crisis for the Coming School Year

By Professor Dennis Dias and Professor John Doherty

August 13, 2020

The National Guard’s traditional mission sets have included natural disaster relief and other emergencies as deemed by the governor of the state. The Guard may also serve federal missions as determined by the President in national emergencies and state missions. The federal mission is to “maintain properly trained and equipped units, available for prompt mobilization for war, national emergency, or as otherwise needed,” in addition to serving as “a partner with the Active Army and the Army Reserves in fulfilling the country's military needs.” While the Guard already exists in all 50 US states, three territories, and the District of Columbia with a full set of missions, their mission is expanding considerably. In the most recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) draft of the annual defense policy bill, it calls for the National Guard and Reserve components to assist in defending the nation in cyberspace. This is a recognition of the pressing need states have in protecting key infrastructure by a force which organically knows the area they are tasked to defend. However, evolution of a mission comes at a cost. This cost is especially prevalent as both federal and state funding is finite and can be consumed by expensive, unforeseen circumstances, for instance, the recent COVID-19 crisis. In order to “do more with less” in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) swiftly responded by supporting telemedicine capabilities in rural areas of the state by increasing the availability of Internet connectivity. Why should other states’ National Guards not take WVNG’s leadership and apply it to expanding broadband access to remote and underserved areas for students? In coordination with school districts and local community leaders, the Guard should take on efforts like this to enable students’ education from home in the upcoming fall semester.

National Guard systems are commonly used to provide broadband access to first responders in emergency situations, such as in the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. (Massachusetts Air National Guard photo/1st Lt. Christopher Qubeck)

The COVID-19 crisis has touched our nation in many ways with impacts both short and long term. It is disrupting many areas of education, which are gaining more visibility as the school year nears or has already started. One of the more critical issues facing our school age population is the lack of access to broadband Internet. The FCC defines broadband as 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. Lack of access to broadband puts a large percentage of the US school age population at risk in the information economy they will move into in the coming decades and have lasting impact on our nation’s security and economy. According to the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, some administrators found that as many as 50% of their students could not connect to the Internet at home when the stay-at-home order was announced. Even states that are well known for technology are having issues. California reported approximately one in five students in California lacks high-speed Internet. Despite creative ideas like taking school buses and using them as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in areas which lack Internet access, there will still be students without Internet access at home.

A potential solution for this crisis may be the National Guard. Communications is a core competency for the National Guard in every state, and this could play a role in this crisis by helping to bring broadband access to these rural communities. This could then improve student’s access in the new school year leveraging the emergency declaration of State Governors and both Title 10 and 32 authorities. Developing broadband infrastructure is a long-term task but the Guard has the ability to field communications systems faster for limited use and has successfully fielded this capability in the past. Today, National Guard units have specialized communications capabilities known as the Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal, or DIRECT. DIRECT offers the ability to deploy Internet and other commercial communications networks in response to a disaster or emergency. Legacy systems that the Guard has access to and training for such as the Joint Incident Site Communication Capability (JISCC) can be leveraged for creating infrastructure that students could use for educational purposes could lay the groundwork for a more long term broadband solution as the geography and gaps in the areas are documented and understood. Given that JISCC and DIRECT systems typically serve sites, operations centers, command posts and other clusters of co-located customers there is still a challenge of adapting this to serve rural and underserved communities. While there have been great examples of communities rolling out Wi-Fi broadband access points at libraries, school parking lots and other community centers, the Guard’s capability can help with that by providing local knowledge to meet the challenges of the terrain and geography – be it in a rural or city area. Adapting DIRECT from use for an operations center to a more accessible Wi-Fi location – which could be from homes or a “drive-up” location.

The Joint Incident Site Communication Capability (JISCC) is a communications platform used by the National Guard to provide broadband access during domestic emergencies.
(Tennessee Air National Guard photo/SSgt Ben Mellon)

While broadband access for students is an immediate need, there are other opportunities bringing broadband to the communities in the area that can also leverage the support. This deployment for students could be an opportunity to engage the local economy that could benefit from the infrastructure that would allow them to compete globally and add services to meet evolving customer needs. Bringing telework opportunities to areas without reliable access to broadband can help enable the ultimate goal of an equitable education for all students. The economic impact of broadband is well documented. In data from before the COVID crisis, US counties with the highest unemployment rates have the lowest broadband usage. Broadband serves to connect businesses to new services, new pools of talent/remote workers, and give rural and underserved businesses the ability to compete on a global scale. However, the immediate need and primary focus needs to be on the students’ broadband access to ensure they are not left behind in the academic year. This need is even more critical for communities of color whose populations are impacted far more by these gaps in broadband, education, and economic opportunity.

While there seems to be universal agreement on importance for broadband access for students and businesses, the challenge of moving forward on a solution is often caused by existing state laws or regulations. Rural municipalities are often the local managers of utilities like electricity, water, and wastewater treatment so broadband access seems to be a natural evolution in these areas. Many municipalities are prohibited from creating a broadband access utility that is competitive to existing providers, even when those providers do not want to provide the rural services needed. Challenges to wider broadband access can be traced to Internet providers’ successful lobbying efforts who wish to stifle any competition from a public provider which could operate under different market conditions. This political debate will continue but the crisis facing our students this coming school year looms closer and more immediate. Governors could declare this crisis an emergency worthy of National Guard support and also seek federal funding to backstop the costs, especially given that many states will also be facing budget shortfalls stemming from the pandemic. While states and municipalities explore a more comprehensive path to ensure increased broadband access for all communities, the Guard can help close that gap now; by deploying JISSC and DIRECT terminals, as described, broadband service to rural communities will improve significantly.

The views expressed here do not represent the Naval Academy, Department of the Navy, or the US Defense Department.

The authors wish to thanks COL John Giordano (USA-ret) for his review of the article.

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About the Authors

Dennis Dias is the Office of Naval Research Chair of Cyber Science at the US Naval Academy where he teaches the Capstone course for senior cyber operations majors. Mr. Dias has a BS degree in Engineering from the US Naval Academy and a MS in Computer Systems Management from the University of Maryland University College. He is a 2009 graduate of the Defense Leadership and Management Program and a 2008 graduate of the Army War College. He served as a Navy Flight Officer and Cryptologic Warfare Officer – retiring from the Naval Reserve in 2015.

John Doherty is a Professor of Practice in the Cyber Science Department at the United States Naval Academy where he teaches the capstone course for senior cyber operations majors and the first-year introduction to cyber security course. Mr. Doherty has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota, a Master of Science degree in Computer Science (Software Engineering) from Arizona State University, and a Post-Masters Certificate in Computer Science (Networking and Telecommunications) from Johns Hopkins University.