Affordable Internet service and cost-effective access to related infrastructure remain major hurdles for schools, although access to fiber-optic cables and faster wireless networks is improving, according to a new survey of school district leaders.
“While progress is happening, policymakers and educators will need to keep their eyes focused on continued investments in robust, reliable education networks...to enable digital learning and address issues of digital equity,” wrote Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, in the group’s third annual “E-rate and Infrastructure” report.
The survey of 531 district officials was conducted in partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and MDR, an educational research group.
Among the findings:
- Internet Speed: While fully two-thirds of school systems say they’re meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s short-term connectivity goal of at least 100 megabits-per-second for every 1,000 users, fewer than half (45 percent) reported that all schools in their districts are also meeting that target. Worse: Nearly one-fourth of respondents said that none of their schools currently meet the FCC’s short-term goal, and fewer than 1 in 10 respondents said that all of their schools meet the FCC’s long-term connectivity goal of 1 gigabit-per-second for every 1,000 users.
- Cost: Money is still seen as the biggest barrier to robust school connectivity: 46 percent of survey respondents identified the cost of monthly recurring charges as their biggest problem, followed by 34 percent of who cited high upfront capital costs.
- Wi-Fi: There were signs of big progress on wireless connectivity, with just 1 percent of survey respondents reporting that their high schools did not have wireless access, 13 percent reporting middle schools did not have wireless access, and 10 percent reporting elementary schools did not have wireless access. Two years ago, 43 percent of high schools and 36 percent of middle schools were described as not having wireless connectivity in their classrooms.
- Down Time: Most respondents (61 percent) said their school systems still experienced significant unplanned Internet downtime of between one and three days per year. Four percent of survey respondents said their networks were down 30 days or more per year.
- Rural Schools: The new survey results indicate that the country’s rural schools continue to be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to affordable connectivity. A higher percentage of rural respondents identified cost as a major barrier, and lack of competition appears to be a big reason why: 54 percent of respondents from rural districts reported that there is only one Internet provider in their area (compared with 46 percent overall), and 38 percent said they received only one or no qualified bid for E-rate services (compared with 29 percent overall.)
The new findings come at a time of particular interest in school-broadband infrastructure. In 2014, the FCC approved a historic overhaul of the federal E-rate program, which subsidizes telecommunications services for schools and libraries using funds raised through fees on consumers’ telephone bills.
In addition to raising the program’s annual spending cap by more than 60 percent, to $3.9 billion per year, the commission also approved a series of policy changes aimed at prioritizing broadband access and Wi-Fi infrastructure while de-emphasizing phone support and other “legacy” technologies. The FCC also adopted a series of rule changes aimed largely at helping rural schools by increasing competition among telecoms in the country’s hardest-to-serve areas.
Forty-eight percent of district leaders who responded to the CoSN survey had positive reactions to the E-rate changes, compared with 28 percent who viewed the changes negatively and 24 percent who said they were not sure.
Some of the ambivalence may be due to concerns over declining support for phone and related services; nine in 10 survey respondents reported that their schools would be “significantly” or “somewhat” affected by the phase-down of those services.
The FCC and school-technology advocates have recently turned their attention to the so-called “homework gap,” based on students’ different levels of access to Internet connectivity outside of school.
The new report suggests that schools have a long way to go to help bridge that divide: Three-fourths of respondents said their districts do not provide any off-campus services to provide connectivity to students.
The survey did find, however, small gains in the percentage of districts described as providing community or business WiFi hotspots for students, as well as free or subsidized home Internet access to low-income families and free or subsidized wireless access to their surrounding communities.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.