Districts Get Creative to Build Faster Internet Connections

By Benjamin Herold — January 14, 2014 6 min read
Val Anderson hollers orders to a crew member while they install fiber-optic cable at the Butte High School Career Center in Montana. The new fiber-optic network will deliver faster Internet connections to 12 city school buildings.

Desperate for access to high-speed fiber-optic cable that can meet their demands for bandwidth, and frustrated with the ways in which federal regulations and large telecommunications companies often get in the way, some districts are getting creative.

Take the 5,000-student Butte district in southwestern Montana. It recently initiated a public-private partnership to build a brand-new fiber network after its plans for using technology were thwarted time and again.

“I don’t want you to think we tie our horses to the fence post out here,” Superintendent Judy M. Jonart said of her rural mining town. “We want to get to 1-to-1 computing. We’re not doing as much videoconferencing or collaborating across classrooms as we want to. We’d like to get phone over the Internet.”

But over the past decade, Ms. Jonart said, a lack of viable on-the-ground options has left Butte, like thousands of other school districts, struggling with Internet connections far too slow to take advantage of the digital revolution in K-12 education.

“We had to do it ourselves,” she said. “We didn’t have any other choice.”

Fiber is generally regarded as the fastest, most reliable, and most adaptable vehicle for satisfying schools’ huge appetite for more bandwidth, but only about 40 percent of U.S. districts are believed to have direct fiber connections to an Internet service provider, based on the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

"What we did in Butte can be replicated in other cities. It takes a lot of working together, but it's doable," said Butte Superintendent Judy Jonart, standing in the data center that will be part of the backbone of the district's new fiber-optic network.

Many districts have also struggled to establish internal fiber connections among all of their schools. Experts say changing those realities is the surest way to realize President Barack Obama’s goal of bringing high-speed Internet connections to nearly every school within five years.

But because installing fiber-optic cable entails significant upfront costs, large telecommunications companies have declined to build out such networks in many rural and remote sections of the country, leaving districts such as Butte with few existing options to tap.

Making matters worse, districts are prohibited from using federal E-rate funds to build and manage their own fiber connections to the Internet.

The E-rate program, which provides more than $2 billion each year for schools and libraries to buy telecommunications services at discounted prices, further limits districts by requiring them to pay a monthly fee for the data that flows through newly built fiber networks, rather than taking the more cost-effective approach of leasing the actual cable (known as “dark fiber”) itself.

Many telecommunications companies seem content with the current arrangements.

But some education-technology advocates, including Evan Marwell, the CEO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, which advocates for upgrades to the Internet infrastructure serving K-12 public schools, argue that the system is unfair.

“Self-provisioning and dark fiber should be competitive options so the E-rate program can actually deliver the bandwidth our schools need,” said Mr. Marwell, whose group is calling for changes in E-rate regulations, as well as a one-time investment to upgrade the country’s fiber-optic infrastructure.

This spring, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on revisions to the E-rate program, the culmination of a long-awaited overhaul. It remains unclear if and how the provisions related to fiber-optic cable will change.

In the meantime, districts from Montana to Virginia to New York have become increasingly proactive in finding ways to connect to fiber despite the challenges.

Struggles and Frustrations

Butte’s efforts came after a decade of struggles and frustrations.

First, said Ms. Jonart, the company that provided the district’s old wireless network went out of business.

See Also

See related story, “3 Districts Making Progress on High-Speed Internet”

Butte schools also had to fight a new carrier just to get access to outdated T-1 phone lines for some of its schools, she said. Though such lines offer only 1.5 megabits per second of connectivity—not enough to support more than a handful of students using multimedia content at the same time—T-1 and similar DS-1 lines still served as the primary connection to an Internet service provider for 42 percent of U.S. school districts as recently as 2008, according to the NCES. Experts say that figure has likely decreased in recent years, but not dramatically.

And for the past five years, the Butte district has been using a shared network operated by a cable company. It’s a fiber connection, but Ms. Jonart said the company has not offered her district a cost-effective way to move beyond its current bandwidth of 10 megabits per second—far slower than the 100 mbps called for in President Obama’s ConnectEd program and not enough to allow all the students in a school to take online assessments at the same time.

“We were really flailing for a solution,” Ms. Jonart said.

Ed-tech advocates say that lack of choice and competition is a big problem with the current system.

There’s little financial incentive for telecommunications firms to build fiber networks in hard-to-reach places with few residents, and E-rate provisions serve to limit the other options available to districts in those areas.

Even in places where telecoms have built out fiber networks, advocates say, the E-rate essentially requires districts to lease whatever bandwidth the companies choose to offer. A lack of transparency in pricing may also be leading some districts to pay more than is necessary.

And while other means of providing connectivity, such as wireless networks and broadband cable, have gains some traction, they are, for now, regarded by many observers as unlikely to serve as a primary vehicle for meeting the president’s goals.

Nevertheless, many telecommunications companies, such as New York City-based Verizon, are resisting changes to the existing regulations regarding fiber-optic cable.

In comments filed with the FCC, Verizon urged the commission to reject “proposals to allow E-rate money to be used by schools and libraries to build or purchase their own wide-area networks.” The company argued that such an approach would “unnecessarily divert funds that other schools and libraries could use to obtain high-capacity connections.”

Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, criticized telecoms’ general stance.

“They’ve been acting to meet their shareholders’ short-term interests,"Mr. Levin said. “I wish, however, that they would see [expanding access to high-speed connections] as a social good, and that they wouldn’t put handcuffs on schools’ ability to get services and essentially shut out rural kids from high-speed access. That’s what’s happening today.”

Seeking Solutions

Despite the challenges, a growing number of districts are finding ways to access fiber.

Virginia’s 14,000-student Suffolk city school system, located near the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, is one of the relative few that have managed to build and control their own networks.

Director of Technology John W. Littlefield said the latest piece of the district’s 15-year effort involved laying more than six miles of fiber to a newly constructed elementary school. The Suffolk district is paying about $176,000 upfront, but expects to recoup that money in less than five years, based on estimates of what it would have cost to lease a 1 gigabit per second connection from a telecommunications provider. For many districts, though, the initial capital outlay required to install fiber-optic cable—an average of roughly $50,000 per mile, according to Mr. Marwell of EducationSuperHighway—remains prohibitive without federal support. A district also faces the challenge of having enough in-house expertise to manage the network once it’s built.

In Montana, Butte won’t own its fiber, but Superintendent Jonart expressed elation that all nine of her district’s schools will soon have a 2 gigabit per second connection—fast enough to begin Skyping between classrooms, doing online professional development for teachers, and allowing every student to be online at once.

It might not be the perfect solution, Ms. Jonart said, but it’s far better than what was in place.

“If change at the federal level isn’t coming fast enough,” she said, “we have to take action ourselves.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Districts Get Creative to Speed Up Internet


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