Equity & Diversity

Price Transparency Tool Aims to Help Schools Get More Affordable Bandwidth

By Benjamin Herold — January 21, 2016 5 min read
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Hoping to help schools secure more bandwidth at better rates, the nonprofit advocacy group EducationSuperHighway released today a searchable online tool that aims to make the prices districts are currently paying for Internet services more transparent.

The new web tool, called Compare & Connect K-12, contains information on the amount of bandwidth nearly every school district in the country receives, as well as the service provider who delivers it, the rate the district pays, the type of connection in use, and more.

Such in-depth information is publicly available and accessible for the first time following the Federal Communications Commission’s historic overall of the E-rate program in late 2014.

The ability of schools to finally see what their neighbors are paying for Internet service—and what other companies are charging for that service—is a key part of the huge national push to bring affordable high-speed Internet to all U.S. schools, said EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell.

“Districts buying broadband have been operating in a vacuum, with no idea what they should be getting for their budget,” Marwell said in an interview. “Making this information available so districts can be more effective negotiators will help them get more value for their broadband dollars.”

The primary audience for the new tool is school district technology leaders. The hope, Marwell said, is that those administrators will now be able to quickly see whether their districts are getting the bandwidth they need to meet new federal connectivity targets—and whether they are being charged a fair price.

If the answer to either question is ‘no,’ Marwell said, the technology officials can now easily find similar districts in their regions and states that are getting better deals, then negotiate with either their existing service providers or potential new providers from a position of relative strength.

“This is really all about giving school districts options and visibility,” he said.

The launch of Compare & Connect K-12 comes just over a year after the FCC completed a significant overhaul of the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for schools and libraries. In addition to prioritizing support for broadband services and raising the program’s annual cap by more than 60 percent, to $3.9 billion, the commission approved a series of rule changes aimed at making affordable high-speed Internet more accessible for more schools. Among the shifts: a new requirement, fought heavily by the telecom industry, that pricing information be made transparent.

Recent reports from both EducationSuperHighway and the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school technology leaders, highlighted the need to help schools—especially those in small, rural, and remote districts—in their negotiations with Internet service providers:

In a statement, FCC managing director Jon Wilkins touted the importance of the new online tool from EducationSuperHighway as a means of addressing those realities.

“Pricing transparency was a key part of the Commission’s E-rate modernization work, because it will help drive down broadband costs for schools and libraries,” Wilkins said.

“We are thrilled that EducationSuperhighway has taken some of the publicly available E-rate data and put it in a format that will be easy for schools and libraries to use as they consider how best to meet their needs for affordable broadband services. We hope many other stakeholders will be inspired to work with the data sets to develop additional tools.”

A Wealth of School-Internet Price Data

Compare & Connect K-12 is based on schools’ 2015-16 E-rate application data. It includes pages for roughly 13,000 public school districts nationwide (although not charter schools or Bureau of Indian Education schools.) While the data from more than 6,600 of those districts was verified directly by EducationSuperHighway staff, there are many districts with unverified data, including some that come with a disclaimer that further information is needed. Staff from the organization are encouraging districts to check their own pages and provide verified information where possible.

For districts interested in searching out potentially better deals, there are a multitude of options. Take, for example, the tiny 126-student Quemado, N.M. school system, featured in Education Week’s Reversing a Raw Deal series. The district is just exceeding the FCC’s current connectivity target, offering 140 kilobits per second, per student of bandwidth. But it is paying $165/mbps for Internet access—many times more than the $3/mbps rate ESH hopes to establish as the national norm.

A search of the Compare & Connect K-12 tool shows a number of other small rural districts around the state that have managed to secure better deals, often from different providers.

Marwell of EducationSuperHighway said his hope is that districts such as Quemado will be able to use such information to get more bandwidth for similar prices from their existing providers—or to invite new providers in to their service area, with the help of the FCC’s recent commitment to use E-rate dollars to fund most of the costs of new fiber build-outs.

While the sudden availability of Internet service price information will undoubtedly lead to some disgruntled providers, Marwell said, the new school-broadband landscape “truly is a win-win opportunity for all.”

“Part of the reason there won’t be a backlash is that we are focused on not trying to take a dollar of revenue away from [providers],” he said. “Schools just need a lot more bandwidth for that dollar.”

Photo: Evan Marwell, chief executive officer of EducationSuperHighway, speaks during a 2014 news conference in Little Rock, Ark. --Danny Johnston/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.