Districts Still Struggling to Equip Schools With High-Speed Internet
Cost, rural settings are big obstacles, survey finds
Affordable Internet service and cost-effective access to related infrastructure remain major hurdles for schools, although access to fiber-optic cables and faster wireless networks is improving, according to a new survey of school district leaders.
"While progress is happening, policymakers and educators will need to keep their eyes focused on continued investments in robust, reliable education networks... to enable digital learning and address issues of digital equity," Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, writes in the group's third annual "E-rate and Infrastructure" report.
The findings come at a time of increased scrutiny of schools' broadband access, given the connectivity goals set forth by President Barack Obama in 2013. To help meet those targets, the Federal Communications Commission last year approved an additional $1.5 billion per year in spending on the E-rate program, which subsidizes telecommunications services for schools and libraries through fees on consumers' telephone bills.
"Despite the fact that there were major changes in the E-rate, the build-out of new fiber networks will not happen overnight," said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies LLC, a consulting group.
CoSN's survey of 531 district officials was conducted in partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and MDR, an educational research group. The report outlined key findings in the following areas:
Slightly more district leaders and technology officials report that all their schools are providing 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students, while slightly fewer say that none of their schools are meeting that target, compared with 2014.
• Internet speed. While fully two-thirds of school systems say they're meeting the FCC's short-term connectivity goal of at least 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 users, fewer than half (45 percent) reported that all schools in their districts are also meeting that target. In addition, nearly one-fourth of respondents said that none of their schools currently meets the FCC's short-term goal, and fewer than 1 in 10 respondents said that all of their schools meet the commission's long-term connectivity goal of 1 gigabit per second for every 1,000 users.
• Cost. Money is still seen as the biggest barrier to robust school connectivity, with 46 percent of survey respondents identifying the cost of monthly recurring charges as their biggest problem, followed by 34 percent who cited high upfront capital costs.
• Wi-Fi. There were signs of big progress on wireless connectivity, with just 1 percent of survey respondents reporting that their high schools did not have wireless access, 13 percent reporting middle schools did not have wireless access, and 10 percent reporting elementary schools did not have wireless access. Two years ago, those percentages were 43 percent for high schools and 36 percent for middle schools.
• Internet downtime. Most respondents (61 percent) said their school systems experienced unplanned Internet downtimes of between one and three days per year. Four percent of survey respondents said their networks were down 30 days or more per year.
• Rural schools. The new survey results indicate that the country's rural schools continue to be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to affordable connectivity. A higher percentage of rural respondents identified cost as a major barrier, and lack of competition appears to be a big reason why. Fifty-four percent of respondents from rural districts reported that there is only one Internet provider in their area (compared with 46 percent overall), and 38 percent said they received only one or no qualified bid for E-rate services (compared with 29 percent overall.)
CoSN also asked district leaders and technology officials for their take on the FCC's recent changes to the E-rate program. In addition to raising the program's annual spending cap by more than 60 percent, to $3.9 billion, the commission approved a series of policy changes aimed at prioritizing broadband access and Wi-Fi infrastructure while de-emphasizing phone support and other "legacy" technologies.
The FCC also adopted a series of rule changes aimed largely at helping rural schools by increasing competition among telecommunications companies in the country's hardest-to-serve areas.
Forty-eight percent of district leaders who responded to the CoSN survey had positive reactions to the E-rate changes, compared with 28 percent who viewed the changes negatively, and 24 percent who said they were not sure.
Some of the ambivalence may be due to concerns over declining support for phone and related services; 9 in 10 survey respondents reported that their schools would be "significantly" or "somewhat" affected by the phase-down of that funding.
Bridging the 'Homework Gap'
One district that has benefited from the changes is the 77,000-student Milwaukee public schools. Nearly $5.4 million in E-rate discounts for internal Wi-Fi services and equipment this school year has allowed the district to install wireless access points in all its classrooms and gymnasiums, the district said in a statement.
"The infrastructure improvements have benefited our classrooms by increasing access to online curriculum, cloud services such as our digital library materials, and online testing," a district spokesman wrote.
The FCC and school technology advocates have recently turned their attention to the so-called "homework gap," based on students' different levels of access to Internet connectivity outside of school.
The new report suggests that schools have a long way to go to help bridge that divide: Three-fourths of respondents said their districts do not provide any off-campus services to provide connectivity to students.
The survey did find, however, small gains in the percentage of districts described as providing community or business WiFi hotspots for students, as well as free or subsidized home Internet access to low-income families and free or subsidized wireless access to their surrounding communities.
It used to be that the importance of good broadband infrastructure was easy to overlook, said Levin of EdTech Strategies, but that has changed.
"It's like electricity—you don't think about it until the lights won't turn on," he said. "It may not be as visible as other parts of the technology equation, but schools' need for more bandwidth isn't going away."
Vol. 35, Issue 12, Page 8Published in Print: November 11, 2015, as Districts Struggle to Equip Schools With Fast, Affordable Internet