IT Infrastructure

Bandwidth Demands Rise as Schools Move to Common Core

By Ian Quillen — October 15, 2012 7 min read
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From the outside, experts, advocates, and government agencies appear to be placing more than enough attention on schools’ growing demand for better Internet connectivity.

As one example, promoting and facilitating projects to bring more broadband Web access to schools and libraries has been a major focus of the Federal Communications Commission during the more than three years Julius Genachowski has served as FCC chairman.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based Software and Information Industry Association, or SIIA, in a survey released this past summer, reports that educators are continuing to express a high desire for more robust on-campus Internet connections. And the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, in recommendations it issued last spring for school connectivity speeds, signaled that schools’ demand for connectivity was something that would increase exponentially rather than linearly.

But with the Common Core State Standards initiative pushing schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia to administer “next generation” assessments almost exclusively online—with an accompanying commitment to more digital resources—it’s possible schools’ demand for bandwidth could exceed even those projections.

Further, ensuring access to enough bandwidth—the common term for the measure of the rate of data consumption that is possible over a given network—isn’t always as simple as increasing funding or raising priorities. And it’s even more difficult when districts use shortsighted methods to calculate just how much bandwidth they need.

“My pulse on what is going on in many districts is that necessary bandwidth ... is lacking, both between schools and out to the Internet,” says Bailey Mitchell, the chief technology and information officer for the 38,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., school system. He also chairs the board of directors of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN.

“Most folks identify needs as the amount of equipment you have connected,” Mitchell adds, but “it is more about the levels of [technology] adoption for your teachers, students, and staff.”

Determining Bandwidth Needs

In its report issued in May, SETDA recommends that by the 2014-15 school year, schools have at least 100 megabits per second of connectivity to the external Internet for every 1,000 students and/or staff members, and 1 gigabit per second of connectivity for data transactions within a schoolwide or districtwide network. That level of connectivity is what is necessary to allow students and faculty to use contemporary Web technologies such as video streaming, webinars, online courses, and formative and summative online assessments, according to the report. That 2014-15 year is the same year the common standards and their new assessments are to be fully implemented.

By the 2017-18 school year, those recommendations call for expanding to 1 gigabit per 1,000 students and/or staff members for an external connection, and 10 gigabits for internal network connections for the same number of people, in anticipation of future technologies not yet conceived.

Both sets of recommendations have taken the coming implementation of the common standards into consideration, says SETDA Deputy Executive Director Geoffrey H. Fletcher. He concedes that any such considerations would fall well short of a concrete estimate of the connectivity required specifically for assessments and other digital materials stemming from the common-core initiative. And he also suggests the bandwidth necessary to administer assessments may pale in comparison with other, more organic school connectivity needs, which themselves could grow because of the standards’ emphasis on applied knowledge and critical-thinking skills.


SETDA recommends that by the 2014-15 school year, schools have at least 100 megabits per second of connectivity to the external Internet for every 1,000 students and/or staff members.

“I think the [bandwidth] load in many school districts may be greater during a normal day than it would be for the online assessments,” Fletcher says, adding that on assessment days, schools may have to choose between using the internal network only for assessment or for other school functions as well.

“What I am curious about is ... how, of the content itself that is typically used in the classroom,” he says, “how much of that is going to be turned digital.”

However, for some schools and districts—particularly rural ones—getting enough connectivity to execute assessments across an entire school will be a substantial challenge, according to Denise Atkinson-Shorey, an educational technology consultant in Colorado and the former president and chief information officer for the Educational Access Gateway Learning Environment Network, or EAGLE-Net Alliance, which leads network-infrastructure projects geared to educational and government services.

The reason, Atkinson-Shorey says, is that the basic architecture of the Internet is not all that dissimilar to that of a municipal water system: Think of a core network as the central water supply, the middle-mile connections as the pipes that take the water from that supply to neighborhoods, and the network gateway as the smaller pipes that take water into homes.

If the capacity for data transmission is too low at any step along the way, the connection speed (like water pressure) suffers no matter how much a single user invests in making bandwidth available at the network gateway end, she says. And in the case of many rural schools, it’s the middle-mile connections, or the cables that run from hubs on the national Internet backbone, that are inferior.

“They haven’t built the pipes out to get it there, so even if they could find the dollars to buy additional bandwidth, it’s not there, it doesn’t exist,” Atkinson-Shorey says of the plight of some rural schools.

That’s not to say money for bandwidth projects won’t also be hard to find. Constricted budgets mean that not only do schools face the task of increasing their connectivity with less money to spend, they may also encounter more competition in applying for public funding to help with such projects.

Competing for E-Rate Money

On the national level, that competition is increasingly seen in the volume of applications for funding from the E-rate, the roughly $2.3 billion annual federal program that helps subsidize schools’ and libraries’ Internet-related purchases, notes John Harrington, the chief executive officer of Funds for Learning, an E-rate consulting firm based in Edmond, Okla.

Applicants for the two-tiered program have generally been able to expect requests for Priority 1 funding—for projects related directly to giving schools a connection to an outside network—to be fulfilled. But increasingly, only districts with the highest levels of poverty are able to qualify for whatever funding remains for Priority 2 aid, which can be devoted to projects to improve internal connectivity.

Harrington says those funding requests would increase even without the common core, as digital resources continue their transition into the educational mainstream, but predicts common-core adoption will heighten the competition.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s going to drive the demand for bandwidth, which will drive the demand for E-rate funding,” Harrington says. “It will definitely show up in this next E-rate application cycle because that’s the 2013-14 funding year, and at the end of that you’re starting the 2014-15 funding year.”

In October 2010, the FCC made some changes to the program that could be seen as measures to alleviate funding pressures, including indexing the then-$2.25 billion annual program for inflation; allowing for the use of E-rate dollars for buying Internet connections via fiber-optic wire networks; and allowing for a half-dozen pilot mobile-device programs, in which devices can leave campus with the student, to draw from a pool of $10 million in E-rate funding.

Fiber connections, at least theoretically, could be cheaper than other broadband options, depending on availability, while mobile devices can be a more affordable way than laptop or desktop computers to provide 1-to-1 connectivity, freeing up more cash to be invested in infrastructure.

“The increase in E-rate funding requests reflects that schools realize that now, more than ever, students need high-speed Internet connectivity to meet their educational needs,” reads an FCC statement issued to Digital Directions. “Through recent reforms to allow E-rate recipients to select the most cost-effective broadband solutions, and our daily interactions with stakeholders, we are continually assessing the E-rate program to make sure we can meet the essential needs of schools and libraries while staying within a set budget.”

Karen Billings, the vice president of the educational division for the SIIA, says research the trade association has published reinforces Harrington’s assertion that demand for connectivity will continue to rise.

Survey results released by the SIIA in July show that K-12 educators, despite experiencing increasing access to broadband Internet, still want more connectivity. But Billings says it’s anyone’s guess the exact influence that implementation of the common core has on that equation.

“We don’t know if the responders themselves were expecting that additional need because of common core, but we do know that the need was there and they see it,” Billings says. “From the other comments [on the survey], they all realize that with 2014 and online assessments approaching, their bandwidth has to be significantly stronger than it has [been] in the past.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Bandwidth Demand Rising


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