Faster Internet, Lower Bandwidth Costs for Schools, Study Shows

The E-rate program, state broadband initiatives, and technological improvements continue to yield big gains in K-12 internet connectivity, according to a new analysis by EducationSuperHighway.

Faster Internet, Lower Bandwidth Costs for Schools, Study Shows

Facebook Twitter Addthis

More than 10 million students gained access to high-speed internet at school over the past year, and the cost of bandwidth for schools continues to fall, according to a new analysis from the broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.

All told, 88 percent of public school districts now meet minimum internet-connectivity targets established by the Federal Communications Commission. That’s up from just 30 percent of districts as recently as 2013, according to EducationSuperHighway’s 2016 State of the States report.

In an interview, CEO Evan Marwell attributed the rapid improvement to three factors:
  • The FCC’s 2014 overhaul of the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for schools and libraries (The program’s annual spending cap was increased from $2.4 to $3.9 billion as part of that overhaul);
  • Recent actions taken by 34 state governors to support expanded broadband access; and
  • Technological advances that have allowed internet service providers to offer schools more bandwidth at lower rates.

"The E-rate is a model," Marwell said. "Show me another government program where we’ve seen such spectacular results."

That’s not to say everything is perfect. More than 19,000 schools, serving almost 12 million students, still don’t meet the current FCC target of 100 kilobits per second, per student of internet connectivity, making it difficult to support streaming video, online collaboration, and other core elements of digital learning. And just 15 percent of U.S. districts meet the FCC’s higher connectivity target of 1 megabit per second, per student, set to become the national benchmark in the 2018-19 school year.

The gaps are particularly pronounced in small-town and rural America, home to 79 percent of the 3,700 schools that still lack access to fiber-optic connections. In those areas, dramatically improved school broadband is likely to require infrastructure build-outs that can cost anywhere from $75,000 to $420,000 per school.

"The reality is that rural schools have the highest costs, the smallest budgets, and the least technical expertise," Marwell said.

But even in America’s hardest-to-serve communities, EducationSuperHighway found signs of progress.

New Mexico, for example, is one of seven states to take systematic advantage of a new E-rate rule providing federal matching funds to states that help pay for new fiber-optic construction. Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, led a cross-agency initiative in the state that brought fiber-optic connections or upgrades to 40 mostly rural schools, at no cost to the districts themselves. Lawmakers in nine more states have introduced legislation that would create similar matching funds.

Internet service providers can also help level the playing field, Marwell said. His group’s report identified 15 companies it believes could easily upgrade their service to schools serving roughly 6 million students. The key, he said, is new technology: Once schools are connected to fiber-optic cables, the amount of bandwidth they deliver is regulated by electronic components on the ends of those cables. Replacing those electronics doesn’t cost much, but can lead to big connectivity upgrades.

Bipartisan Support

The recent progress has occurred amid a relatively stable political and regulatory landscape. That will soon shift, but the potential ramifications for school broadband are not yet clear.

Incoming President Donald Trump, for example, has called for a major infrastructure-building initiative. That could include extensive fiber-optic deployment, especially to underserved rural areas. But details remain murky, and no new construction is imminent.

Trump will also presumably appoint a replacement for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, who will step down Jan. 20. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican who could be in line for the chairmanship, has made better connectivity for rural America a priority. But he has also opposed providing more money to universal-services programs such as the E-rate, citing waste, fraud, and abuse. Through a spokeswoman, Pai declined an interview request.

Despite such uncertainty, major changes to the E-rate are unlikely, Marwell said, thanks to the program’s foundational role in helping to connect and upgrade so many schools.

"There’s such incredible bipartisan support for this work among governors that I don’t see the FCC messing with it," he said.

The State of School Internet Connectivity

A new report from broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway details the increased bandwidth, lowered costs, and lingering gaps that define the state of internet connectivity for U.S. public schools. Following are four charts and a map that tell the story, using EducationSuperHighway's new data.

Related Links:
The Slowest Internet in Mississippi
Big Progress, Hurdles on School Internet Connectivity, Analysis Finds
The E-Rate Overhaul in 4 Easy Charts

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Faster, Cheaper Tech for Schools Needed