Schools Build Own Ramp Onto Info Highway

By Andrew Trotter — April 12, 2000 6 min read

Don’t tell Patrick B. Goff how easy it is to tap into the Internet these days.

For more than a year, the McDermitt, Nev., computer teacher tried to figure out a way his rural K-12 school could afford a fast connection to the global online network.

With no Internet service provider, or ISP, anywhere in the area, the best offer he got was $5,000 a month—an impossible sum.

So Mr. Goff and five students at McDermitt Combined School found another way: They formed a nonprofit company and became their own ISP, providing online service not only to their school, but also to 165 residents and businesses—including three gold-mining operations and an Indian reservation—in seven villages near the Oregon border.

The work includes plenty of hassles, but “it’s worth it,” Mr. Goff said. “We’re providing a service that has never been here before, a service for people to do whatever they want it to do.”

The revenue generated by the student-run company also pays for the 212-student school’s own Internet service for a network of 72 computers. “If we couldn’t sell these services, we wouldn’t have that access,” Mr. Goff said.

Although the particulars vary, educators in many regions have discovered that they have to jump-start the telecommunications revolution in their own communities.

That’s not what was foreseen when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a law that was expected to spark competition among telephone, cable, and Internet providers to bring advanced communications services to every corner of the nation. As it’s turned out, many communities, especially in isolated areas, have been left waiting.

Beyond Dial-Up Access

While almost every school in the country now has at least dial-up access to the Internet, many still lack dedicated high-bandwidth service, which makes going online much more practical and educationally useful.

Some districts that are launching their own ISPs say they’re also motivated by the need to give their students access to the Internet at home as well as in school.

“To allow our community to take advantage of the next level of technology, we need to develop a vehicle to help them tap the Internet,” said Charles P. Rembold, the superintendent of the West Greene school district in Waynesburg, Pa. Next month, his district will start lending 50 laptop computers and giving free Internet access to its 600 families.

In McDermitt, Mr. Goff began investigating the ISP business after the AT&T Corp. quoted him a $5,000-a-month-rate for leasing a high-bandwidth T-1 line.

Rather than accept what the district could afford—hooking four computers up to a dial-up modem—Mr. Goff and a group of his senior students found a company that could give them access to the Internet by satellite for $2,700 a month, providing for the school’s needs with plenty of capacity to spare.

If they had 70 customers who would pay $30 a month for unlimited access and electronic-mail accounts, they calculated, their costs would be covered. They quickly signed up more than that number. (In March, the cost of the service was lowered to $25 a month.)

Students Call the Shots

Mr. Goff, some other adults, and the students formed a nonprofit corporation, but students make most management decisions and answer customers’ service calls. The service rents space from the school for its two computer servers and the 29 computer modems that handle local Internet traffic from customers.

The participating students are not paid, but they will receive college scholarships out of the profits, probably worth between $500 and $1,000 each, Mr. Goff said.

In Dos Palos, Calif., meanwhile, the Dos Palos-Oro Loma school district had Internet service, but its rural community didn’t. So a school booster club took the lead in getting the community online by creating its own ISP.

Revenue from the fees paid by 540 subscribers covers the salary of a teacher for the high school’s computer-networking class, said Paul Chounet, the district’s technology coordinator, who is also on the booster group’s board. But the high participation rate—about 25 percent of the district’s households—also helps justify investing in an extensive school World Wide Web site and encouraging teachers to use e-mail to communicate with parents.

“We know that a large number of our students have access at home,” Mr. Chounet said.

In some urban areas where Internet access is widely available but still too costly for some families, districts can strike favorable deals with commercial providers rather than become their own ISPs. Since 1997, for example, the 70,000-student Denver school system has had a partnership with US West Inc., a major telecommunications companies based there, to provide Internet service to the homes of about 7,500 school employees and families.

The Internet service costs $12.95 a month—the lowest price in Denver, according to Christine Smith, who runs the project for the district. And $2 of that fee goes to the district, which is responsible for customer services, such as mailing out software upgrades.

“It’s going very well,” Ms. Smith said. The program paid $180,000 for the district’s distance-learning programs in the 1998-99 school year, she noted, and the district’s homework hot line has seen a dramatic increase in use.

She said the program has also benefited US West by allowing the company to see how families would use Internet service.

The district is circumspect about promoting the service, though, because the deal undercuts US West’s standard price of about $20 a month, Ms. Smith said. “We don’t advertise,” she said. “To try to gain market share is not an objective we have.”

New Role for E-Rate?

School officials who have taken the responsibility of running an ISP business acknowledge there are drawbacks.

The L’Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kan., was an ISP for its community for the 1996-97 school year, said Howard Pitler, the former principal who set up the service with a local company as a partner. “We sold the service to our parents and any other community members who were interested,” he said.

The service was successful, attracting 500 subscribers with its low fee of $17.95. That included 100 businesses, which received additional benefits, he said.

“My kids did your Web site for you. My students learned an awful lot about Web design and oral and written communications,” Mr. Pitler said.

But the principal said that he spent a lot of time taking service calls, and that the responsibilities took him further from his students than he would have liked. Still, he disagreed with a new superintendent’s decision to stop the service in 1997.

“He felt it was unfair trade, unfair competition, because we didn’t have to pay the same overhead cost of a business,” Mr. Pitler said.

Now a principal at the city’s Brooks Middle Magnet School, Mr. Pitler said district-run ISPs make sense in a transitional era, until the free market offers a wide enough range of choices to serve all prospective users.

But Mr. Chounet of the Dos Palos-Oro Loma district believes the idea of nonprofit ISPs connected to school districts will persist.

And that idea is supported by no less than Reed E. Hundt, who was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when it launched the federal E-rate program, which provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications services, in 1998.

Mr. Hundt said he envisions a day when families sign up for an array of Internet-based services when they enroll their children in school.

“To do that, the school might want to be an ISP,” he said.

Mr. Hundt said he believes the FCC should revise the education-rate program to allow schools to receive discounts for running such services.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Schools Build Own Ramp Onto Info Highway