In just one year, E-Rate requests for high speed internet of one gigabit per second or faster have doubled. And a whopping 90 percent of applicants expect that their bandwidth needs will continue to increase over the next three years.
These findings are from the “2016 E-Rate Trends Report” by the consulting group Funds for Learning. The report analyzed last year’s requests and surveyed the opinions of the applicants. Education Week reports that more than 24,000 applicants sought $2.3 billion for data and internet service.
This demand for better connectivity is not shocking. EdTech has covered the importance of establishing a backbone infrastructure of wireless access to roll out big tech programs and offer students a future-ready education.
Funds for Learning found that 72 percent of school districts say Wi-Fi is critical to fulfilling their mission and about 43 percent of districts have a network that is only one to three years old.
“Districts are realizing the significant role that tech is playing in their schools,” says John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning. “It used to be that technology was just an IT department discussion or a budget line item. Now it is integrated into the fabric of the school.”
E-Rate funding, which Harrington notes is particularly helpful because it is not a part of the federal budget and subject to the ups and downs of Congress, has been a factor in addressing the digital divide between tech opportunities at rural and urban schools.
The 2014 proposal to overhaul the E-Rate program — raising the spending cap and prioritizing support for broadband networks — was really focused on addressing this issue, a blog on the Federal Communications Commission website reports.
Funds for Learning found that in 2016 more rural schools (54 percent) than urban schools (46 percent) applied for funds to support connectivity.
Though Harrington believes the demand for more connectivity at schools will never really end — new tech will mean demand for even faster connections — the focus of digital equity concerns will turn to the types of access students can get at home.
“Schools are going to continue to need faster internet. They are going to update their Wi-Fi and get better wide area networks,” says Harrington. “What’s really going to set the pace is not going to be what they can get at school.”
Addressing the Homework Gap and Connectivity at Home
In an EdTech interview, Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, reiterated that the focus on connectivity needs to shift to what happens after school is over.
“[Focusing on in-school access] made sense when most classrooms lacked broadband and Wi-Fi. But with the new expanded E-Rate, we are on a path to solving that problem,” said Krueger in the article. “If we really want to create environments for digital learning, we must have broadband access beyond the school.”
Some schools are beginning to scratch the surface of this issue with mobile hotspots and partnerships with local businesses, Krueger and Harrington say.
Others are getting even more inventive.
Watkins Glen Central School District in N.Y. has a bus fleet with Cisco 829 industrial integrated-services routers providing Wi-Fi to students.
“It’s completely seamless, so students just stay on the BYOD network when they get on the bus, and then they can do their homework during their ride home from school,” says Melanie A. Chandler, the school district’s director of technology in the Summer 2016 EdTech story.
This innovative idea has spread to other school districts, and ed tech expert Matthew Lynch told TrustED that he believes these unique hotspots will begin to trend in 2017.
“If school administrators are willing to put in the time, effort and resources to make these types of projects a reality for their districts,” says Lynch in the article, “their students will reap the benefits.”