With December fast approaching, it’s been nearly one year since the Federal Communication Commission cast its historic vote to update the E-Rate program with additional funding and streamlined application processes.
What can change in a year? A lot, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). But serious blockages continue to slow progress toward the White House's ConnectED goal of having 99 percent of all schools connected to broadband by 2018.
"While progress is happening, policymakers and educators will need to keep their eyes focused on continued investments in robust, reliable education networks with broadband access and Wi-Fi to enable digital learning and address issues of digital equity," says Krueger.
Earlier this month, CoSN released its third-annual Infrastructure Survey, which questions K-12 school leaders and technology directors about the state of connectivity in U.S. school districts. There have been some improvements across the spectrum, including a dramatic increase in the number of districts with access to lit fiber connections and Wi-Fi becoming more affordable as a result of FCC reforms.
But survey respondents identified three major challenges to solid Internet connectivity at today's school districts: affordability, network speed and capacity, and lack of competition for broadband services.
The third obstacle in that list is at the heart of the first two challenges — particularly for rural districts, says Krueger. When a single Internet service provider has cornered the market in the region, school districts have few options for pricing and no connection redundancy. As a result, some districts are facing three days or more of unscheduled Internet downtime, and they're paying a lot more for it.
"When the network isn't reliable, all the wonderful visions we have around more engaging digital learning environments are for naught," says Krueger.
Affordability has been the largest barrier to robust connectivity in all three surveys CoSN has taken thus far. Still, improvements are on the horizon. This year's respondents reported lower monthly Internet bills, and fewer districts reported paying exorbitant rates. Districts paying more than $50 per megabyte per second decreased from 32 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in the latest survey.
Krueger recommends that districts in need of cost relief look into consortium buying. Grouping their broadband need with others in the region would give them more buying power when negotiating for better costs, he says. Consortiums can also help with the costs of connectivity within school buildings, such as access points.
The trouble is, even after consortiums negotiate a good price, it may not be enough for the district's needs. In this year's survey, 23 percent of respondents reported having exceedingly low bandwidth performance in their districts.
"Nearly one quarter of all school systems have only reached 10 percent of the FCC’s short-term broadband connectivity goal (100 Mbps per 1000 students)," according to the survey.
Though certain districts are in dire straits when it comes to their bandwidth speed, many others are taking advantage of lit fiber connections to lay a pipeline to the future.
"More than 70 percent of school system leaders indicated that they are using lit fiber for transport types for WAN operations, a dramatic one-year increase from 46 percent in 2014," according to the survey.
CoSN’s complete Infrastructure Survey can be downloaded from the organization’s website.