Ed-Tech Policy

Big Progress, Hurdles on School Internet Connectivity, Analysis Finds

By Benjamin Herold — November 19, 2015 7 min read
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler says the push to expand and modernize the E-rate is paying dividends for schools across the country.
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The number of students without adequate Internet connections in school has been cut in half over the past two years, according to a new analysis by broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.

During the same period, the rate most districts pay for bandwidth has also declined 50 percent, the group found.

Despite that substantial progress, however, more than 21 million students still go without adequate Internet access in the classroom, according to the new report, titled “State of the States 2015: The Status of K-12 Broadband Connectivity in Public Schools.

Roughly 9,500 U.S. public schools—many of them rural—also still need access to fiber-optic cables or other modern technologies that will allow them to meet schools’ ever-growing demand for more bandwidth.

“People are focused on this issue now, and they know there is an opportunity to finish the job,” said Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO.

“But affordability is really the number one challenge,” he said. “Even if we get the infrastructure in place, if schools can’t afford to buy what they need, they’re going to fall behind.”

The analysis is based on a review of recent applications to the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for schools and libraries. EducationSuperHighway analyzed the 2015 applications of 6,781 school districts serving 25 million students in 49,000 schools across all 50 states. The study included direct outreach to more than 5,500 E-rate applicants.

The new findings offer the first comprehensive look at the impact of the Federal Communications Commission’s recent moves to establish national targets for school connectivity and to overhaul the E-rate program. The program applications that are the basis of EducationSuperHighway’s analysis are the first since the commission formally established national school-connectivity targets and made hundreds of millions of new dollars available to support school broadband purchases.

“It’s working,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who led the push to modernize the E-rate, told Education Week in an interview. “We’ve had an awful lot of major policy issues that we’ve decided in the couple of years, but I think the one I’m most proud of is the decision we made to reform and expand the E-rate program.”

In addition to its research efforts, EducationSuperHighway, which has received millions of dollars in financial support from the foundations associated with technology executives Bill Gates, of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, among others, is also leading a national advocacy and technical-support effort. Governors in more than three-dozen states have signed on, according to the new report.

Meeting Minimum School-Connectivity Targets

In 2014, the FCC formally recommended that all schools provide at least 100 kilobits per second of bandwidth to each student and staff member. The commission described that threshold as the minimum necessary to support digital learning in schools.

A year earlier, EducationSuperHighway had found that 40 million students lacked access to that level of broadband in school.

Now, that number has been cut by roughly half, the group reports. More than three-fourths of school districts currently meet that minimum target, compared to just 30 percent in 2013. Significantly, previous gaps in basic-connectivity levels between affluent and economically disadvantaged schools and urban/suburban and rural schools also appear to have been largely eliminated.

“I have to admit, I was surprised,” Marwell said in an interview. “There’s been a ton of progress.”

The median cost of Internet access for schools, meanwhile, has dropped from $22 for each megabit-per-second in 2013 to $11 per mbps now, EducationSuperHighway found.

The reason, the group’s report concludes, is because Internet service providers are now giving school districts a lot more bandwidth for only a little bit more money.

That dynamic is important for two reasons.

One is the breakneck growth in schools’ demand for bandwidth, which is rising at a rate of roughly 50 percent each year, according to EducationSuperHighway’s analysis. That appetite has been fueled in large part by the massive influx of digital devices into schools, as well as the shift to online state testing.

The other is that current minimum-bandwidth targets are only temporary. The FCC and President Barack Obama alike have also established a more ambitious long-term target of 1 megabit per second, per student.

Just 9 percent of districts are currently meeting that target, EducationSuperHighway found.

Challenges in Rural America

The new analysis comes almost one year after the FCC overhauled the E-rate, raising the program’s annual spending cap to $3.9 billion and approving a host of regulatory changes aimed at encouraging fiber build-outs and increasing competition among telecommunications companies.

The impact of those moves is now being felt in schools across the country: Total E-rate subsidies for Internet access rose from $470 million in 2013, before the reforms were passed, to nearly $680 million in 2015, according to EducationSuperHighway.

Other groups are also looking at the impact of the E-rate overhaul. Earlier this month, for example, the Consortium for School Networking released results from a survey of more than 500 district leaders and school technology officials. That report also found signs of significant progress in school connectivity—as well as ongoing challenges related to affordability.

“While we are headed in the right direction, our mission is not accomplished,” said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger in reaction to the EducationSuperHighway findings. “Education leaders and policymakers need to keep focused on building robust and affordable networks that enable digital learning.”

Among the ongoing challenges: rural schools.

Read: Reversing a Raw Deal, Education Week’s new special reporton efforts to bring affordable high-speed broadband to rural schools.

The playing field has largely been leveled when it comes to meeting minimum bandwidth-per-student targets, EducationSuperHighway found, but much of that progress is likely due to the small numbers of students served in most rural schools.

More troubling, Marwell said, is that rural schools continue to find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to pricing and access to optimal technologies. Roughly 1 in 5 rural schools lack access to fiber-optic cables, compared to 10 percent of suburban schools and 5 percent of urban schools, according to the EducationSuperHighway analysis.

Rural schools also pay about two-and-a-half times as much for bandwidth as their urban and suburban counterparts.

“The challenge for rural America is the future,” Marwell said. “If we don’t get affordable fiber out to those communities, they’re going to get left behind.”

E-rate’s Impact

To “finish the job” of providing minimally adequate connectivity to all students and moving the country closer to the FCC’s long-term goals, roughly 9,500 schools will need fiber-optic or equivalent connections, the EducationSuperHighway report concludes.

The E-rate modernization effort should help, Marwell said. His group estimates the program will be able to easily cover an estimated $1 billion needed to provide fiber or equivalent connections to schools that still lack them.

But time is of the essence, Marwell said. The commission has temporarily removed its cap on the amount of E-rate funds that can be used to pay for new fiber build-outs. Districts have three more years under the new uncapped window.

In order to meet the FCC’s long-term 1 Mbps/student connectivity target, the price of school bandwidth will also need to keep falling, to about $3/Mbps, EducationSuperHighway suggested.

Many districts are already meeting that and other newly proposed affordability targets, Marwell said. Strategies that could help in the coming years could include increased bulk and consortium purchasing by schools and states, as well as efforts to provide new options to districts long faced with little choice in the broadband market.

As districts reach new contract agreements with Internet service providers who have already recouped the costs of building their fiber networks, the cost of bandwidth should also come down, EducationSuperHighway hopes.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association declined to comment on the new affordability targets.

One potential hurdle: In order to maximize the impact of such changes, many school districts will need to become more sophisticated in their understanding of the broadband marketplace, Marwell said.

Thirty-eight governors, including those in Montana and New Mexico, have formally pledged to make affordable high-speed broadband for all schools a priority in their administrations. Strategies might include setting statewide connectivity goals, appointing a leader for state efforts, and funding or otherwise supporting new fiber build-outs.

“Most of the new money is coming from the E-rate program,” Marwell said. “The real role of governors is providing leadership and expertise and nudging and pushing and bringing people along for the effort.”

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