Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Jan. 18, 2022

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N.M. fights digital divide with TV technology

'Datacasting' devices allow TV receivers to connect to computers


SANTA FE, N.M. — Internet problems continue to slow down many students in New Mexico, but a pilot project using TV signals to transmit computer files may help.

On Nov. 18, state public education officials distributed devices to eight families in the city of Taos that allow schools to send them digital files via television. The boxes the size of a deck of cards allow digital television receivers to connect with computers using technology called datacasting.

Many rural areas of New Mexico are too far from internet infrastructure like fiber cables and cell towers but do get TV reception.

In October, local broadcasting affiliates of New Mexico PBS finished testing the technology to make sure they could set aside bandwidth not taken up by TV broadcasts and dedicate it to broadcast downloadable digital files.

The pilot program in Taos relies on a broadcast from northern New Mexico PBS affiliate KNME, while two others are planning to roll out pilot programs in the cities of Silver City and Portales.

Remote learning during the pandemic highlighted the digital divide for New Mexico students, many of whom had to learn using paper packets while their peers could participate in virtual lessons via video chat.

Even with schools back to offering in-person classes, internet inequality persists after class when students do homework, and for students being quarantined due to virus concerns.

Even where families are in internet coverage areas, it’s not always enough for the entire household.

“It’s very slow, and I have a lot of students,” said Ofelia Muñoz, a mother of four in Ranchos de Taos who has a monthly subscription to a cable internet service. “It’s bad when they have to do homework.”

One of her children is a university student who takes most of his classes online and won’t be connected through the TV broadcast. But if his younger siblings can access a virtual library of school materials through the new device, it will lower the overall burden on the family’s bandwidth.

There are limitations to the technology that won’t allow it to replace the internet. For one, the datacasting is currently one-way and won’t allow students to send data back to schools. That means no video chats with teachers or access to email.

“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,” New Mexico Education secretary Kurt Steinhaus said.