It’s not uncommon for households in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to lose internet for a full day. The last time it happened, back in the spring, Christina Rothermel-Branham connected herself (a professor at Northeastern State University, teaching online) and her son (a kindergartener at Heritage Elementary, learning online) to the hotspot on her phone. Luckily, nobody had a Zoom call scheduled that day; worksheets and YouTube videos proceeded as planned.
Rothermel-Branham’s son is now in first grade. He has multiple Zoom sessions per day and takes online classes through Outschool. She doesn’t know what they’ll do the next time their house loses service. She hopes her phone’s hotspot will be able to handle both of their video calls at once — but she’s worried that it won’t.
Rothermel-Branham’s son is one of the millions of students around the US who are currently taking some (or all) of their classes remotely. That’s been the status quo since the spring for many districts, which moved instruction online to limit the spread of COVID-19. The first few weeks of school were difficult for rural families. Teachers struggled to reach disconnected students, using phone calls, social media, and text messages. But they only had to finish the spring, and many hoped that by the start of the new school year in the fall, things would be better.
Almost seven months later, rural districts around the country are still scrambling to accommodate all of their pupils. It’s become clear to teachers, administrators, and community members that the digital divide is too big for schools to bridge on their own. The infrastructure needed to teach rural students remotely would require systemic change — it would require government assistance. Months into the pandemic, educators say they still don’t have what they need.
Part of the problem for rural areas is income. Just over half of households with annual incomes under $30,000 use broadband internet, according to Pew Research Center. Poverty rates are much higher in non-metro areas than they are in metro areas across the US — and the largest gap, by far, is in the South. And the COVID-19 pandemic, which demolished 113 straight months of job growth, has overwhelmingly impacted low-income minority communities.
The average cost of internet service is $60 per month in the US. And in areas where cable isn’t available, some families need to turn to satellite service, which is even more expensive at $100 per month on average. That’s a cost not all families can bear, especially during a recession.
But high-speed internet isn’t an option even for some households that could afford the service. The Federal Communication Commission’s broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second (colloquially, “25/3”). Those speeds, considered to be the minimum needed for a single 4K Netflix stream, are unheard of in some rural areas.
Just two-thirds of rural Americans have broadband access, per Pew, compared to three-quarters of urban residents and 79 percent of suburban residents. But it’s hard to measure how widespread the service actually is because the FCC’s broadband maps are notoriously terrible and classify a ZIP code as “served” if just one home has access.
Laying cables in areas where very few paying customers live isn’t an attractive investment option for providers. This is compounded by nature — hills, lakes, rivers, forests, and other terrain can both interfere with wireless signals and present challenges to laying infrastructure in the first place. And these regions can be hard hit by power outages. Trees and leaves interfere with power lines during adverse weather, and since crews prioritize restoring power to the largest groups of customers, areas where the fewest people live are often the last to get service back.
Deloitte estimated in 2017 that modernizing rural broadband across the country would require a $130–$150 billion infrastructure investment. Democrats proposed a $1 billion investment earlier this year, but it did not pass.
Even areas where internet is widespread don’t all have the bandwidth to accommodate remote school. Eileen Carter-Campos, a third grade teacher in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York’s Hudson Valley region, often finds her internet unusable in the morning due to the high demand from remote classes. Not only is she constantly kicked out of her Google Meet calls, but she sometimes doesn’t receive emails from students until the day after they’re sent.
In the first week of remote teaching, Carter-Campos says, “There was such an overload that I had to contact Spectrum and was like, ‘Can you check my modem?’ I wanted to make sure I was running on high speed. I was running on the highest speed, but we were having a lag because every school district was on.” Carter-Campos now has to start her classes later in the day, at lower-traffic times.
Other areas are realizing now, thanks to virtual education, just how disconnected their district is. Cilla Green is a music teacher for the Caddo Hills school district in southwest Arkansas. Over half of Green’s students don’t have internet that allows them to stream — some have satellite, some have bad cable, and none have a high-speed connection. The district, when planning for a blend of online and in-person instruction, was taken by surprise.
“We didn’t realize how many of our students did not have that availability,” Green said. “I thought some of our students should be able to stream and most of them were like ‘No, we have internet service through our phones and it’s not very good’ or ‘I have internet service but I can’t do any streaming, it’s only good for email.’”
Amid all of this, teachers are doing everything they can.
Alex Beene teaches adult education and ACT prep classes in western Tennessee. By his estimate, over 70 percent of households in his area don’t have reliable internet access, including around half of Beene’s adult students and 15 to 20 percent of his ACT students. He’s running ACT classes over Zoom, while his adult education classes are blended; students can schedule appointments to come in one at a time, but lessons are mostly online.
“This is just a huge, earth-shattering event for them,” Beene told The Verge. “If you don’t have a high-school diploma, you’re already at a disadvantage in the workplace. And now you have employers who have sent them home, and they say ‘I can finally work on my diploma.’ Well, if you don’t have that internet access, you can’t do that either.”
“And the longer they stay out of that environment without eligible internet … the more behind they become,” he added.
Throughout the summer, Beene has been printing out study packets. If students can’t pick them up at school, he mails them to their homes. When the students finish their packets, they mail them back for Beene to grade. If they have questions, he’ll call them on the phone with a copy of their assignment in hand. He has to be quick, though — some of his students have prepaid smartphone plans with limited minutes.
For students who are very disconnected, Beene has to get even more creative. “I’ll go over common math strategies in their everyday lives,” he says. “I’ll tell them to go through, as they’re going to the supermarket, to see an item and figure out sales tax on it. If they have monthly payments, figure out how much interest they’re doing. Anything we can do to keep their minds engaged.”
Such workarounds seemed feasible as a temporary solution in March. But as online class stretches on, it’s become clear to Beene and his colleagues that they can’t come close to replacing in-person education.
“This pandemic has taught us that this [broadband] is not something that families need to be without,” Beene said. “This needs to be just like water in the year 2020. Every home needs to have it. It needs to be running and plentiful. It’s opening our eyes to the fact that we need, for education, to have an infrastructure that allows all of our families to be online.”
Schools in Connecticut’s Region One district, which services a 275-mile area with approximately 13,000 residents, received some state funding to create hotspots in public places throughout its six municipalities — town halls, libraries, school buildings. In a recent survey of the region, almost half of respondents said they were unhappy with their internet service, and two-thirds said they don’t have reliable cell service in their homes.
Students can come to the hotspots, download their assignments, work on those assignments at home, then go back to the hotspots to submit them. They can also participate in live lessons next to the hotspots, from their cars, if necessary.
“This is not desirable,” says Lisa Carter, Region One interim superintendent. “We’re doing our best to make things work.”
That’s a sentiment shared by every professional I spoke to. Since March, the Spring Grove Area School District in Pennsylvania has been distributing hotspots to its distance learning students and publicizing a list of locations where students can access public Wi-Fi. But Chris Enck, Spring Grove’s IT director, hoped it was temporary. He thought the area would have better access by now.
“This is not something that the educational community’s going to solve on its own,” said Enck. “We need support from the government.” Enck has been waiting for that support, but he says it hasn’t come. “I know government doesn’t move fast — it’s been six months. And my question is: Have we made any progress? It’s been six months we’ve been in that situation. I don’t know that we’re any further ahead now than we were back on March 13th.”
Carter agrees that hotspots aren’t enough for the long haul. To keep students engaged, Carter says her district needs the government to step in. It needs guaranteed access.
“Access to broadband should be a public utility. When the telephone first started, it was determined that everyone should have access,” Carter said. “The same was true with television and radio broadcasting.” Carter believes internet access should be no different. “It’s something none of us can live without,” she said. “That’s an essential ingredient of what we need to communicate with each other as 21st-century people.”
Some communities have taken matters into their own hands. A small number of rural areas — around 9 percent — use fiber-optic networks, which are substantially faster than DSL. Northwest ConneCT is an advocacy group committed to bringing such a service to northwest Connecticut — 35 percent of which doesn’t have cable service, by the group’s estimate.
“We’re never going to see wireless communications built out in these areas,” said Wayne Hileman, chairman of Northwest ConneCT. “There’s no economic incentive for any incumbent provider to come in and do this for us. If we want robust, reliable internet service in our corner of Connecticut, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
Northwest ConneCT has seen a surge of local attention since classes went online. “For the first time people needed true two-way internet in their homes and they were aghast to find out they didn’t have it,” said Hileman. “They’re saying ‘I thought I was getting this great service,’ and the truth is they’re not.”
But building that sort of infrastructure at a community level is no easy task. Northwest ConneCT has been at it for over five years. The group initially developed a plan in which communities would contract for construction and ownership of trunk wiring on poles. Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), with pressure from cable companies, ruled in May 2018 that an old state statute that granted municipalities free access to utility poles didn’t apply to commercial broadband. Northwest ConneCT sued PURA and won in late 2019 after a multiyear court dispute.
The fight is still far from over. Northwest ConneCT is now battling other regulatory hiccups, including one that would bar towns from modifying poles until their owners have deemed them “ready,” allowing them to slow-walk and delay the process. Northwest ConneCT is currently working on a bill. It’s tried others in the past but hasn’t yet gotten one to a vote.
The saga underscores the hurdles involved in expanding high-speed internet access without private sector or larger government support. “Solutions tend to be very expensive, and that’s why it requires a lot of work between a lot of players,” said Peter Hajdu, CEO of Dura-Line, which designs conduits that help deploy fiber-optic cables in rural areas. “We have to invest more altogether, the private participants, the private corporations like ours, the big service providers, as well as the federal government.”
Hajdu added, “It’s a really hard job.”
Epic’s latest argument in its fight against Apple keeps antitrust issues front and center
Epic Games, the game engine developer and creator of the wildly popular Fortnite game, is keeping the focus squarely on antitrust issues in its lawsuit against Apple as pressures mount to rein in anti-competitive practices of the world’s largest tech companies.
Antitrust arguments are gaining ground on both sides of the political spectrum, which could present a more favorable environment for Epic to make its case.
Earlier this month the Trump Justice Department filed its antitrust case against Google even as Congress laid out its roadmap for how to limit the monopoly power of a quartet of trillion-dollar companies: Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (the parent company behind Google).
Epic’s lawyers acknowledged in the filing that the company breached its contract with Apple, but said that it only took that step because Apple’s contract restrictions are illegal, according to the company.
“When Epic took steps to allow consumers on iOS devices to make those payments directly, it breached some of the contractual restrictions that Apple imposes on iOS developers,” the lawyers wrote. “Epic did so because those contractual restrictions are unlawful. Epic chose to take a stand against Apple’s monopoly to illustrate that competition could exist on iOS, and that consumers would welcome and benefit from it. Epic did so without advance notice to Apple because Apple would otherwise have used its monopoly control to prevent that competition from happening.”
Ultimately, the argument comes down to whether Apple can claim ownership of commerce occurring on the phones they make and through the marketplace that companies are forced to use to access the users of those phones.
“It’s a crazy, misguided view,” according to a tweet from Epic Games founder and chief executive, Tim Sweeney.
The argument that Epic is making to the court is that Apple’s contractual restrictions are anticompetitive and deny choice to developers and consumers.
From Epic’s perspective, it took the steps it did in creating an in-game marketplace that its players could access directly, to prove that the App Store is not a necessary part of the iOS ecosystem; “they are just the tools Apple uses to maintain its monopoly,” the company’s lawyers wrote.
“Apple has no right to the fruits of Epic’s labor, other than the rights arising under a contract. Consumers who choose to make in-app purchases in Fortnite pay for Epic’s creativity, innovation and effort—to enjoy an experience that Epic has designed,” the company claimed in its filing.
The legal confrontation between one of the world’s most valuable tech company and one of the tech industry’s rising (and incredibly popular) stars began in August when Epic Games introduced a new payment mechanism to its Fortnite app allowing gamers to purchase its in-game currency directly and bypass Apple’s in-app purchase framework.
The company pushed the same update to its Android game, as well. Both Apple and Alphabet responded by taking down the company’s Fortnite game from its app stores.
Earlier this month, Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers, kept a temporary restraining order issued in September in place which simultaneously protected Epic’s Unreal Engine from retaliation by Apple, while allowing Apple to keep Epic’s Fortnite game off of its App Store.
Tencent leads $100M Series B funding round into China-based esport provider VSPN
Further confirmation that the esports market is booming amid the pandemic comes today with the news that esports ‘total solutions provider’ VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised what it describes as ‘close to’ $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings . Other investors that participated in the round include Tiantu Capital, SIG (Susquehanna International Group), and Kuaishou. The funding round will go towards improving esports products and its ecosystem in China and across Asia.
Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneers in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.
In a statement, Dino Ying, CEO of VSPN (see also our exclusive interview) said: “We are delighted to announce this latest round of funding. Thanks to policies supporting Shanghai as the global center for esports, and with Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an expressing confidence in the development of esports, VSPN has grown rapidly in recent years. After this funding round, we look forward to building an esports research institute, an esports culture park, and further expanding globally. VSPN has a long-term vision and is dedicated to the sustainable development of the global esports ecosystem.”
Mars Hou, general manager of Tencent Esports, commented: “VSPN’s long-term company vision and leading position in esports production are vital for Tencent to optimize the layout of the esports industry’s development.”
We had a hint that Tencent might invest in VSPN when, in March this year, Mark Ren, COO of Tencent Holdings, made a public statement that Tencent would provide more high-quality esports competitions in conjunction with tournament organizers like VSPN.
As we observed in August, Tencent, already the world’s biggest games publisher, that it would consolidate Douyu and Huya, the previously competing live-streaming sites focused on video games.
In other words, Tencent’s investment into VSPN shows it is once again doubling-down on the esports market.
This Series B funding round comes four years after VSPN’s 2016 Series A funding round, which was led by Focus Media Network, joined by China Jianteng Sports Industry Fund, Guangdian Capital, and Averest Capital.
Now, VSPN has become the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for PUBG MOBILE international competitions, and China’s top competitions for Honor of Kings, PUBG, Peacekeeper Elite, CrossFire, FIFA, QQ Speed, and Clash Royale. This will tally-up 12,000 hours of original content. The company has partnered with over 70% of China’s esports tournaments.
In addition to its core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. In May, VSPN launched its first overseas venue, V. SPACE in Seoul, South Korea.
And even offline events are coming back. VSPN hosted the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August this year. And the LOL S10 event will open 6,000 tickets. However, all tournaments will operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures and approval processes by the Chinese government, and not all esports events are allowing offline audiences. In the main, only high-level ones are approved.
VSPN said it will continue to focus on building an esports short-form video ecosystem, improving the quality of esports content creation, and reaching more users via different channels. VSPN currently houses more than 1,000 employees in five business divisions.
Esports pioneer Dino Ying talks to TechCrunch about the next phase of VSPN
Following the news that China’s esport giant VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised close to $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings, TechCrunch interviewed founder and CEO Dino Ying via email about his strategy for the company.
Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneer in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.
VSPN began hosting the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August, although tournaments now operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures.
TechCrunch: VSPN has a large content production ecosystem surrounding its esports activity. Can you expand on the detail behind your stated short-form video strategy? Will this involve TikTok?
Ying: VSPN intends to use our world-class video production capabilities and industry insights to create different forms of content. We will give our existing fans and a wider audience a new and vivid esports experience. Kuaishou, as our investors and a strategic partner, will support in all ways as a media platform to help our content reach more users. Short-form video is an important part of our future strategy and we look forward to working with platforms all over the world in this regard.
TC: What is VSPN’s share of the eSports market?
Ying: There is no official estimation of the size of the esports market but VSPN is far the largest esports organization in China, with over 1000+ employees and covering every major esports tournament you’ve ever heard of. By many measures, we are the largest esports organization in the world and will continue to expand.
TC: Why do you think Shanghai has become a center for esports?
Ying: As the biggest and perhaps most international city in China, it has a vibrant and increasingly sophisticated economy. Tech innovation and new industries are actively encouraged to grow here.
The Shanghai government has implemented supportive measures and policies to encourage the growth of esports both domestically and internationally. Thanks to these measures Shanghai has become an international hub for the biggest and best tournaments in the world
TC: How important is research into eSports for VSPN and why?
Ying: It is vital for VSPN. As an esports total solutions provider aiming to build a sustainable global esports ecosystem, data and R&D allows us to give our fans a richer experience. The research center will allow us to continually improve as a company and develop the industry.
TC: You are the cofounder and chairman and CEO by title. What is the role of cofounder Ethan Teng?
Ying: Ethan Teng is Co-founder and president of VSPN. Ethan as one of the most important partners of VSPN, with his dedicated esports industry experience, he plays a vital role in leading and managing the company’s strategic goal setting and day to day management.
TC: What is the nature of the strategic relationship with Tencent?
Ying: VSPN is a key partner of Tencent in the esports industry. With Tencent’s support, VSPN has built a leading position in esports tournament content production. Since the emergence of esports in China, our deep-rooted industry expertise has helped further develop the esports ecosystem to grow and mature. Alongside Tencent we will continue to generate new opportunities within the industry.
TC: What made you choose these partners and why? What was the strategic thinking behind these decisions?
Ying: Together with Kuaishou, VSPN aims to establish an esports short-form video ecosystem to diversify existing content, and to build the connections between top quality creators and channels. With an extensive portfolio in the consumer and TMT sectors, both Tiantu Capital and SIG will utilize their industry insights and expertise to aid VSPN’s strategic development. With our investors, we will empower esports to be the new sports for the next generation.
TC: In addition to the core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues. How important are these other businesses – like the venues – to the core offering of VSPN? What sort of growth do you expect in the next few years?
Ying: Regardless of business lines, VSPN’s core mission is to provide the best eSports experiences for our fans. And these experiences include not just online viewing experiences, but also offline ones where fans physically attend. We see our offline business as a natural way to extend our services to our fans; it is an important supplement to our overall offerings. We expect to grow it per our fans’ and partner’s demands.
TC: Mobile esports, especially the KPL and PUBG MOBILE (or Peacekeeper Elite in China), have attracted more and more female audiences. What is the future of eSports among women / girls?
Ying: Mobile gaming has really helped extend eSports’ reach to female participants and audiences. Rightfully so, we see a future of eSports where female participants take a more prominent role than they have done. Not just on stage as athletes, but also off stage as fans and more importantly backstage as top quality producers and decision-makers in the industry. The impact of having more female fans, athletes and professionals is exciting and will be hugely beneficial to the wider industry.
TC: What is the future of esports in Augmented Reality?
Ying: We think eSports in its full form will look and feel a lot different from what we’ve seen so far in sports and entertainment. The possibility of integrating real world gaming and virtual competitions is fascinating. VSPN is only beginning to test the boundaries of new technologies such as AR, VR. The emergence of these technologies will help us create fresher experiences, and the possibilities are endless.
TC: Please tell us more about your personal history?
Ying: Firstly, thank you for having me – it is a real pleasure to speak to TechCrunch and be able to announce our fundraise to the world. I have been working in the gaming and esports industry all my life and I’m excited about the future. With the team at VSPN we are proud to be pioneers in the esports industry.
I live between Beijing and Shanghai, but I spend a lot of my time travelling to other Chinese cities like Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen where we have esports arenas and business interests. Usually I travel internationally to some of our overseas operations and competitions, so I look forward to that when travel becomes easier.
I am a fan of traditional sports too and an avid football fan. I follow some of the European leagues – whenever I can, I go to matches to enjoy the atmosphere; I went to Stamford Bridge early this year and loved it, but seeing the AC vs Inter Derby live is hard to beat…
TC: Why did you get into this business and how?
Ying: Mostly because I am a HUGE gaming fan! I’ve been playing computer games since I was a teenager and enjoy playing all types. Earlier this year I played COD Warzone as soon as it came out and often play PUBG Mobile; I’m extremely lucky to be in an industry which I’ve loved since I was very young. It’s a great way to connect with friends and I am proud to have worked in game development and publishing for my whole career. 5 years ago, esports seemed like the obvious next step because of the competitive element. We saw the beginnings of a trend and founded VSPN with a world-class team to make that potential a reality.
VSPN is very proud to be leading the world in a relatively new industry. We think esports will continue to grow exponentially and will be an incredibly important part of the entertainment industry in years to come. To lead a Chinese company with a global future is really exciting.
TC: What motivates you as a businessman?
Ying: Bringing new forms of entertainment to millions of people around the world and building a global business. TC: Who inspires you most in the business world?
There are so many fantastic businessmen in China who are doing some really innovative things at the moment. For example, the live-streaming industry has become enormous in 2020 due to the pandemic and has offered entrepreneurs a new way to sell products and engage with new audiences.
If I had to name one it would be Mark Ren (COO at Tencent Holdings) – he is an exceptional businessman. The way he has helped create sustainable ecosystems in the entertainment space and captured trends is something every businessman should aspire to. This is something VSPN works hard at and we are very proud to be such close partners of Tencent. TC: What is your opinion of Silicon Valley?
Ying: It’s an amazing place and has shown the world how technology can improve lives all over the world. For many years it has led the world as a centre for creativity and innovation and continues to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs around the world. In China, we have lots of Silicon Valleys! TC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to TechCrunch readers?
Ying: This has been a challenging year for many businesses and the esports industry has had to adapt, but I think the world has seen how big esports is and how it can bring communities and cultures together. As the industry grows there will bigger and bigger online and offline tournaments across the world, especially with 5G and mobile gaming becoming even more popular. We look forward to being at the forefront of esports for competitors all over the world and hopefully some of your readers will enjoy watching our original content and tournaments.
Finally, with celebrities and big brands seeing live streaming and casual gaming as a new way to engage with a wider audience, the future for VSPN is very, very bright.
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