Infrastructure

Half of Districts Lack Connectivity Needed for Widespread Videoconferencing, Device Usage

By Benjamin Herold — November 30, 2020 3 min read
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Even after the coronavirus pandemic eases and most children return to their physical classrooms, millions of newly issued computing devices will need to connect to school networks, and some forms of remote instruction and two-way video conferencing will likely remain popular.

That new reality will likely mean yet another challenge and expense for the nation’s beleaguered K-12 school districts, more than half of which do not currently offer the bandwidth necessary for all students to stream videos or access digital lessons simultaneously, according to a new report.

Nationwide, just 48 percent of districts, serving an estimated 15.3 million total students, currently provide the target bandwidth of 1 Megabit per second, per student in the classroom, according to the nonprofit Connected Nation (formerly EducationSuperHighway) and Funds for Learning, a consulting group, both of which have helped lead a decade-long push to improve school connectivity.

“Despite such progress, 67 percent of students still need access to scalable broadband for digital learning, a bandwidth gap affecting 31.5 million students,” the groups wrote.

That finding is based on an analysis of the 2020 E-Rate applications of nearly 13,000 school districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for the E-Rate program, which provides up to $3.9 billion annually to helps schools and libraries pay for connectivity equipment and services.

Since 2014, when the FCC modernized the program, nearly all schools have met or surpassed the commission’s original bandwidth target of 100 kilobits per second, per student. To encourage schools to expand connectivity to allow for more devices and video streaming, the commission raised its target to 1 Mbps/student target during the 2017-18 school year.

In Arizona, Hawaii, and North and South Dakota, nearly all districts are now meeting that faster target, the new report found. In Kentucky, Maryland, and Rhode Island, however, fewer than 10 percent of districts do so.

Connectivity worries at home and school

In the months since COVID-19 forced schools to close their physical buildings, the reality that millions of American families lack adequate internet access at home has consumed the nation’s attention.

As many as 15 million of the country’s 50.7 million public school students lack adequate connectivity at home, according to a recent Common Sense Media survey. The challenge is particularly acute for Black, Hispanic, and Native American households.

For months, advocates have pushed the FCC to expand the program so that money can be used for at-home connectivity, but proposals to that effect have yet to gain traction.

In the meantime, however, the commission recently opened a second window for schools and libraries to apply for E-Rate funds for 2020. Earlier this year, officials there estimated that total demand was in the range of $2.9 billion dollars, far lower than the program’s $4 billion annual cap.

The available dollars could go a long way towards closing the high-speed school internet gap identified by Connected Nation and Funds for Learning. The difference between 100 Kbps/student and 1Mbps/student of bandwidth will soon become painfully evident, the groups predicted.

“School networks must now be prepared to handle increasing amounts of traffic, particularly livestreaming and two-way video conferencing via applications like Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Microsoft Teams as well as student devices and the digital learning applications installed on them,” according to the report.

K-12 districts have made tremendous progress towards that goal in recent years. In 2015, just 8 percent of districts provided the faster bandwidth, compared with 47 percent now. Schools serving a total of more than 5.8 million students upgraded to such speeds just within the last year alone.

And despite the gap that remains, one of the best signs for schools is the falling price of connectivity, Connected Nation and Funds for Learning reported.

Bandwidth cost schools just $1.85 per megabit in 2020, down from nearly $10 per megabit just five years earlier. And particularly beneficial for schools’ bottom line has been the expansion of fiber-optic networks, which are easily adapted to provide more bandwidth as it becomes needed, without adding substantial costs to schools’ internet bills.

According to the new report, those schools already meeting the FCC’s 1 Mbps/student target pay $1.50 less for bandwidth than schools offering slower speeds.

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

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