A new survey shows that even with enhancements to the federal E-Rate program, many K–12 districts are struggling to afford optimal Internet connectivity.
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently unveiled its second annual E-Rate and Infrastructure Survey, providing insights into the challenges faced by school administrators and IT professionals across the country. The study, conducted in partnership with the American Association of School Administrators and education researchers from marketing firm MDR, is intended to advise the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of school needs and the effectiveness of the E-Rate program. Formally known as the Universal Service Fund’s Schools and Libraries Program, E-Rate provides discounts on telecommunications and Internet .
In July, the FCC implemented reforms to the E-Rate program and announced an additional $2 billion in funding over the next two years. These changes were made to help accomplish President Barack Obama's goal of connecting 99 percent of students to high-speed Internet by 2018, the initiative known as ConnectED.
Jon Wilkins, the FCC’s managing director, told EdTech that the July reforms are "not the end of the story." The agency will be studying the results of the next two funding cycles and continue to search for ways to streamline the program.
But the FCC's recent changes haven't been enough for some school districts, according to CoSN study findings. With school technology budgets "flat or declining," the report concludes that the E-Rate funding cap must be increased in order to meet the FCC's goals.
"Capacity and cost are consistently the two greatest impediments to expanded connectivity, regardless of community type. [Eighty-four] percent of responding districts indicated that their needs are not being met by the E-Rate program, showing little improvement over last year, when districts noted a similar gap," the report states.
For the second year in a row, the majority of school districts surveyed cited the cost of Internet access as the biggest barrier to bringing high-speed connectivity to schools and capital expenses as the second-largest barrier.
The FCC's decision to phase out E-Rate's financial support of services such as dial-up Internet connections was cited as a potential source of "significant negative fiscal impact" by 51 percent of surveyed school districts.
The survey also discovered that schools are facing fresh challenges as wireless standards change, making a one-to-one device policy within schools difficult to achieve.
CoSN listed seven areas that have become problematic for school districts in meeting ConnectED's goals:
- High Costs — Many schools can’t meet the expence of providing a 1Gbps connection.
- Capacity — Growth estimates on school networks are skyrocketing, and existing equipment might not be up to the task.
- Reliability — Districts in areas with limited Internet service competition have few options when facing Net outages.
- Increased digital needs — Growth of online assessments and digital content, along with the number of devices students bring to school, are driving the need for better broadband networks.
- Infrastructure — Aging infrastructure needs replacement.
- Wireless connectivity — Wireless standards are evolving, creating a chaotic environment for planning and budgeting.
- Off-campus and devices — School districts are only now addressing the lack of devices and off-campus access.