It may be several months before school districts receive money set aside in the federal economic-stimulus package for broadband telecommunications connections, but district leaders can take steps now to prepare for the funding—and to make sure they get a fair cut of it.
The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February, allots $7.2 billion to bolster broadband in underserved areas. Of that money, $4.7 billion is to be distributed through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, which is a Washington-based bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the remaining $2.5 billion through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.
Broadband, which allows districts to access high-speed Internet service, determines the capacity of the Internet connection to carry information and how quickly that information is delivered. Many schools do not currently have the broadband capability to keep up with bandwidth-heavy applications, such as blogs, wikis, and streamed video and audio files, and so are missing out on these potentially valuable new learning tools, according to educational technology experts.
But details about how the federal money will be distributed, how school districts should apply for the money, and how much they can expect to receive are still murky.
“Everybody is very uncertain,” says Jeanne Hayes, a founder of the Broadband Knowledge Center of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, and the president of the Littleton, Colo.-based Hayes Connection, which conducts research on how technology is used in schools.
Part of the problem, says Donald G. Knezek, the president of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, is a lack of data about national broadband connectivity.
As a result of the stimulus legislation, the Federal Communications Commission has been charged with creating a national broadband plan that will assess connectivity levels, to be presented to Congress no later than Feb. 17 of 2010. Up to $350 million of the $4.7 billion distributed by the NTIA may be spent on broadband mapping and planning.
But the FCC plan will come too late to make much difference in how the initial round of money for broadband will be distributed, say ed-tech experts, and the specificity of the data that the commission will be gathering is still unclear.
“Someone needs to determine what needs to be gathered and make an effort to get this data collected, and I don’t think that’s going on,” says Tom Rolfes, the education IT manager for the Office of the Chief Information Officer and Nebraska Information Technology Commission. “Folks aren’t breaking it down to the level of granularity that ultimately will be of help to us.”
The cost of bringing broadband to schools, as well as the monthly cost of that access, varies greatly depending on many factors, says Rolfes.
In Nebraska, for example, school districts pay anywhere from $350 to $5,000 per month for broadband access. The average Nebraska district pays $1,900 per month before E-rate reimbursements, which take care of approximately 68 percent of the cost, leaving the average district responsible for about $600 per month.
‘Leading Infrastructure Issue’
Not already having a national broadband plan in place could have been one of the reasons that the money set aside for broadband was reduced during the U.S. Senate’s deliberations on the stimulus bill, says Christopher R. Brown, a founder of the Broadband Knowledge Center as well as a senior vice president at Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based Pearson Education’s curriculum group.
“It’s disappointing because it’s, to my mind, the leading infrastructure issue from a technology perspective that we have,” he says.
1. Evaluate your school district’s broadband situation. How much broadband capacity do you already have? What is your usage? How often are you reaching peak levels? Knowing that information will give you a better idea of your needs and allow you to make a stronger case when applying for grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
2. Explore partnerships with community members, state and local governments, nonprofit groups, consortia, and private businesses. Banding together to advocate for the needs of your district and community may give you a stronger voice and speed up the process of obtaining federal broadband funding.
3. Research a variety of broadband expansion plans and decide what might work best for your district.
Although $7.2 billion is a good start, says Brown, it is not enough to bring the United States up to speed with other economically advanced countries in terms of broadband availability.
To prepare for maximizing the use of the money, Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, suggests that school districts “really assess where they are.”
District-level technology coordinators should know how much broadband capacity their school districts have, what their Internet usage is, and how often the network is reaching peak levels, she says.
Chief technology officers and chief information officers should also be able to explain how much broadband their districts need and be ready to make a case for that capacity to the public at the district and state levels, says Hayes, from the Hayes Connection.
“It’s hugely important for every district [technology] coordinator to check out where their community is and connect at the state level with the appropriate people,” she says. “This is a case, because of the uncertainty and because of the effort required to work on this, where you need to do it in groups.”
Wolf, from SETDA, agrees. “The places that appear to be the most accessible,” she says, “are able to connect with others in the community and bring in the stakeholders.” Reaching out to members of the community is imperative, she says.
And in addition to evaluating broadband speeds and bandwidth capabilities, school districts as well as the FCC should be considering the affordability of broadband, says Knezek, from ISTE.
“If there is broadband, but it’s so prohibitively expensive that a school could never afford it,” it doesn’t matter if the school has access to it, he says.