New nonprofit will expand digital health and education offerings through datacasting

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A platform originally designed to deliver educational materials to K-12 students via spare bandwidth on pubcasters’ DTV signals has expanded into a new nonprofit corporation with a fresh name and a broader mission.

The Information Equity Initiative, announced Wednesday, builds on the work CEO Erik Langner began in his former role as president of the Signal Infrastructure Group. In partnership with three Pennsylvania PBS stations, led by WITF in the Harrisburg market, SIG announced what was then called the Public Media Educational Platform earlier this year. That platform provides the backbone for a system to transmit interactive programming and text to students in households that lack sufficient broadband access — a number Langner estimates may be as high as one in four students nationwide.

As the platform took shape, though, the vision behind it grew beyond the initial focus on K-12 education.

“Our goal as a nonprofit is to make enriching digital resources available to as many people as possible even if they don’t have broadband,” Langner told Current.

“What’s rapidly starting to happen is a proliferation of new use cases,” Langner said. Those could include pre-K and Head Start education, GED and workforce-training content for those past high-school age, and public health information that has become especially important in the pandemic era.

“We’re seeing just increasing demand both geographically and ways in which the television stations can reposition their infrastructure to deliver these critical resources to the community in an asynchronous way,” Langner said.

Four prongs for growth

As IEI prepares to build on the work done by the former PMEP, Langner said it has four goals for its growth, starting with outreach to bring more PBS member stations into the project. At launch, IEI will be working with public broadcasters in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina, with hopes for big growth to follow.

“We’ve been speaking with stations in 20 different states already,” Langner said. “We’re going to continue that work to engage with stations so that we can make this as easy and as turnkey as possible for those that want to start to deliver this service in their communities.”

At the same time, IEI will be working with content providers to expand the library of rights-cleared content its station partners can offer to educators.

“We’re already integrated with [systems] like Google Classroom, so that a teacher, with just one extra click, can deliver packages of educational content that are customized or individualized for their students,” Langner said. “But if the teacher wants to augment that content, then our library, which is continuing to grow over time, will allow them to do that.”

SIG will continue to maintain the software and cloud infrastructure that underlies IEI.

A third prong of IEI’s launch plan is funding. While its services are being offered to stations at no cost and end users are being given receivers for free, those boxes are still a relatively high-cost, low-volume item for now. Including the cost of a receiving antenna and shipping, Langner says it currently costs between $200 and $300 to put a receiver in a student’s home. He’s hopeful that the current chip shortage and other supply-chain issues will ease, reducing the cost of the boxes significantly as more stations join and more boxes are ordered.

With 128 gigabytes of built-in storage and an integrated WiFi hotspot that allows them to connect to laptops, tablets, phones or TV sets, as well as a projected lifespan of four to five years, “it’s a pretty modest investment to allow a family to be connected to both educational and public health resources,” Langner said. 

The cost of those receivers is largely being borne by state education departments, but as the new platform grows, Langner said, it will be working closely with state and local governments, school systems and philanthropists to make the case for increased funding that can put more receivers into more homes.

Finally, Langner said, the creation of IEI will come with a fourth priority: continuing to upgrade the technology behind the platform to support more flexibility, including the addition of fully bilingual content to better reach Spanish-speaking students. 

Local partners seek projects, funding

The new nonprofit is being launched as a joint venture of WITF, WLVT in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and South Carolina Educational Television, with each station having a seat on the IEI board.

At WITF, CEO Ron Hetrick said that a pilot program using datacasting on his station’s ATSC 1.0 signal already has placed receivers in broadband-deprived homes around Pennsylvania, bringing digital learning materials to K-12 students. The next pilot program will bring digital materials to inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, where most instruction still depends on pen and paper because of the security concerns inherent in providing internet access behind bars.

“There’s no better use case for a one-way platform,” Hetrick said of the pilot program, which WITF hopes to expand to three more prisons in the next few months. As with the K-12 pilot, the pilot program in prisons will use the TV spectrum as a one-way channel to deliver video and audio content. Learners will enter their responses, take quizzes and interact in other ways on their devices, generating QR codes or email responses that can be returned to educators without requiring full internet access.

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to be a concern, WITF will also be experimenting with using its datacasting capacity and the IEI platform to supply public-health messaging to remote areas.

“We have a partner here in the state that we’re looking to pilot kiosks that will be both broadband- and datacasting-connected,” Hetrick said. “So in the most rural parts of the state where there’s not internet connectivity, we’ll be bringing both datacasting and digital signage to these places that will have both targeted and broad content from our state partners.”

WITF’s current pilot programs all use just a narrow slice of its ATSC 1.0 digital bandwidth — just 1 megabyte/second of the 19 megabytes/second ATSC 1.0 provides, which in WITF’s case is further split with a commercial channel-sharing partner. By November, WITF plans to be operating in ATSC 3.0 as part of a shared marketwide initiative, with plans to convert its own main signal to the new system sometime after 2024.

As a 17-year veteran of public broadcasting, Langner says the transition from SIG to IEI feels like a natural move for his own career and also for the stations he’s worked with in previous roles, including as president of Public Media Co.

“I find this to be both a critical opportunity, but also one that I’m just deeply passionate about, having kind of been working through the various roles I had in trying to strengthen the fabric of public broadcasting,” he said. “This is what I see as really the next leg up in terms of being able to deliver a whole new service profile to a community.”

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