Special Report
IT Infrastructure & Management

School Districts Seek Faster Internet Connections

By Michelle R. Davis — March 11, 2013 7 min read
Digital-communications teacher Kara Helchelbech works with 7th graders Camden Lilly, left, and Lance Parson in her Clark-Pleasant Middle School classroom in Greenwood, Ind.
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The broadband connection linking Indiana’s Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation to the Internet faltered repeatedly last school year.

When students tried to view YouTube videos, the connection was often slow or unable to handle many users at a time, says Jim White, the director of technology for the 6,000-student district. When the district did its first round of online state testing, White severely limited teachers’ access to the Internet to prevent an overload of the network. Some teachers went for days without any Internet access at all—meaning no online science videos, access to educational games, or use of video-editing sites.

“Talk about crippling instruction,” White says. “You can never have a garage too big, and you can never have too much bandwidth.”

This school year, White has upgraded the district’s technology. He increased the bandwidth to 100 megabits per second, but is pulling that from three different providers so the service never wavers. So far, there have been no significant issues with the use of digital media, he says.

“I’m not getting accolades, though,” he says. “You only hear from teachers if you’re doing poorly.”

Teachers across the country want to personalize learning through technology, districts are putting 1-to-1 computing initiatives in place, tablet devices are flooding into classrooms, and the 2014-15 deadline for online testing under the Common Core State Standards is drawing near. But none of those approaches or plans is possible without high-speed broadband connections.

The Federal Communications Commission has made it a priority to get such fast, reliable connections to every school. It released a national broadband plan in 2010 with recommendations to achieve that goal, and it is slowly modernizing regulations for the federal E-rate program, which reimburses districts for many connectivity expenses.

Though nearly every school is connected to the Internet, not all of them have the kind of connections that allow teachers and students to make full use of digital tools.

A 2010 survey by the FCC found that most schools had access to some form of broadband service, but that nearly 80 percent of respondents didn’t have connections adequate to their needs.

Schools should have at least 100 megabits per second for their broadband connections by 2014-15, says a report issued last year by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, referring to the speed at which information is delivered to a computer. That’s the same speed that the assessment coalitions behind online testing of the common-core standards suggest.

But many schools do not have such high-speed connections, says Douglas Levin, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based SETDA. Even worse, he says, some think they do—and are paying for such service—without really having it available.

Though Internet-service providers might be providing the 100 megabits to a district, outdated wiring, servers, routers, and other equipment may be delivering less to the end user, Levin says. Those pieces of technology need to be upgraded to take full advantage of broadband coming into a district.

“Sometimes, they’re not getting the speeds they think they’re getting,” Levin says. “The speed out to the Internet is only as fast as the weakest link.”

Schools can determine just what speed they’re actually getting in the classroom with a test developed by EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that advocates upgraded Internet access for schools. The group is collecting the results, says Evan C. Marwell, its chief executive officer.

So far, between 100,000 and 200,000 tests have been run, and the group hopes to amass comprehensive data about school broadband access, he says.

“Our test measures what is getting to the classroom,” Marwell says. “States have done a pretty a good job of getting connectivity to schools, but we’ve learned that there is a huge deficiency in the wired and wireless networks inside of schools.”

Statewide Networks

To get schools up to speed, some states, such as Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, and Utah, have developed statewide broadband networks.

Such networks bring equity across a state with rural and urban, high- and low-income areas, says former Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, who helped establish her state’s broadband network, one of the most comprehensive in the country. Each of the 115 school districts in the state is connected to the network, which is managed by MCNC, a nonprofit organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“We can level that playing field through solid connectivity, so digital content at all levels can be accessed by the student,” Perdue says.

Since 2008, the North Carolina network has provided districts with 100 megabits of broadband in cooperation with private network providers. MCNC provides the backbone of the network, and private providers connect it to the district, says Joe Freddoso, the president and CEO of MCNC. The state pays for the network and what the district would be reimbursed for by the E-rate program; the state also pays for much of what is not reimbursed.

Aggregating all the districts allows MCNC to get better rates, and for-profit providers are happy because each district now receives 100 megabits, a boost from what many previously contracted for, Freddoso says.

The connectivity initiative has been a boon to districts such as the 2,500-student Thomasville city school system, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, says Mike Ingram, the district’s director of technology and Title I.

The state broadband network allowed Thomasville to install a districtwide wireless network and implement a 1-to-1 computing initiative at its high school; the program is set to expand to middle school in the next school year.

Even with the 1-to-1 program and some online testing, Ingram reports the district has had “no problems whatsoever with connectivity.” He calls the state network “the single best project the state has ever done.”

But in other places, state networks are disappearing.

Kansas last year decommissioned its state broadband network, says Melinda Stanley, the state education technology coordinator. The network had provided a high-speed line for districts throughout the state.

Now, all districts have to renegotiate contracts with Internet-service providers, Stanley says, and it’s likely some districts will be forced to take a step backward with broadband, particularly in areas where there may be only one service provider.

A report released in February by the Kansas Department of Education found that 53 out of the state’s 208 districts said their Internet-service providers limited the amount of broadband they could purchase, and 69 districts indicated they were challenged finding secure, efficient, and affordable Internet access.

Technical Support

But it’s not all about broadband.

Marwell of EducationSuperHighway says that aside from securing high-speed broadband, one of the biggest problems districts have is finding someone to manage the network internally.

“Schools don’t have the expertise they need to effectively design and implement a network,” he says. “Creating a network and buying broadband is a lot more complicated than buying pencils.”

In North Carolina, the connectivity initiative not only provides the broadband, says Freddoso, it also provides an in-house staff of eight network engineers that schools can call on for advice.

In addition, the state provides E-rate consultants to help schools maximize dollars from the federal program. Since North Carolina began providing such assistance, districts are drawing down four times more E-rate money than before, Freddoso says.

Districts across the country should try to maximize E-rate reimbursements and tap into any state technical support available, Freddoso says.

End users, like Kara Heichelbech, a 7th grade digital-communications teacher at North Carolina’s Clark-Pleasant Middle School, often don’t know the backstory when it comes to broadband. They just want high-quality, reliable service.

Heichelbech says that last school year, before the district’s broadband upgrade, she spent three days without Internet access in her class, which relies heavily on the use of online tools. At other times, her Internet connection was slow or would cut off in the middle of a lesson, particularly during state testing time.

This school year, with a better connection, she’s doing more with video online and has assigned more-rigorous projects.

When Internet access goes down, “the kids are frustrated and just want to shut down,” Heichelbech says. “I haven’t experienced that at all this year.”

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