Expand reliable, affordable broadband to ensure educators and their students gain the full benefit of current and emerging technologies.
Access to affordable Internet connectivity — or broadband — is a continuing struggle for K-12 schools.
These schools generally get their broadband from commercial providers or Research and Education (R&E) networks. The networks, supported with both federal and state funds, provide Internet services for educational institutions that commercial providers do not provide or provide at prices beyond the budgets of schools. In most SREB states, R&E networks serve primarily postsecondary educational institutions. Commercial providers — generally telecommunications companies — provide Internet connectivity for business, educational and residential use.
Currently, K-12 schools generally get most of their Internet connectivity from telecommunication companies. Schools have been limited in the amounts of connectivity/bandwidth they can purchase, because the rates are prohibitively high and their funds are limited — even though they have access to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) administered E-rate program. This program allows K-12 schools to purchase bandwidth from telecommunication companies using special discount rates. The reduction in rates is offset for the telecommunication companies by fees that consumers pay into the FCC’s Universal Services Fund. The demand for bandwidth through the program, however, has outpaced the fees collected each year since the program began in 1996. In fact, a 2013 Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey estimated that 29 percent of school districts did not apply for E-rate funding, because they did not expect to receive sufficient funding. This means that schools’ efforts to increase broadband have gone unmet; additional effort is needed to address existing shortfalls and to prepare for current and increasing demand. The FCC’s E-rate is currently under review to determine if it can fund the infrastructure and recurring costs of K-12 schools’ growing broadband needs.
In the meantime, education leaders have called for R&E networks to provide more Internet services to K-12 schools. Many telecommunication providers have objected, fearing a loss of revenue. The R&E networks assess their combined bandwidth needs every three years and enter a competitive bidding process with the bandwidth wholesalers — the same ones from which telecommunications companies purchase their bandwidth. The networks have been able to secure bandwidth at rates far below those that telecommunication providers currently quote for schools. In fact, while some states have developed — and others have proposed — networks for schools that partner with R&E networks, telecommunication providers have opposed these; because they reduce commercial revenues. These states include Florida, Kansas, Missouri and Ohio. As a result, telecommunication providers have pushed hard at federal levels, and in some states, to restrict or eliminate networks that are directly or indirectly funded by public monies.
While these conflicts are played out in federal and state legislatures (and sometimes in courts), the needs of K-12 students for greater access to the Internet continue to grow. At the same time, R&E networks are slowly growing and finding ways to meet the ever expanding research and teaching applications required for today’s colleges and universities. In fact, many of the R&E networks have sufficient bandwidth to assist their states with the growing K-12 needs, if regulations permitted them to link schools to their robust resource.
State leaders need to empower public-private partnerships to find common ground between the various parties to ensure that adequate, affordable bandwidth is made available for all schools. Some telecommunication companies have been willing to join partnerships and enter into agreements to make this happen. States can take the lead in brokering such partnerships and agreements. Whether states need to make infrastructure investments or change regulations, they need to ensure that schools can connect to the Internet, through a collaboration of statewide broadband service providers, public or private.
What is the status in SREB states?
Researchers do not have adequate information about the bandwidth needs of schools and postsecondary institutions to evaluate the current status in most SREB states. The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) established a standard of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) per 1,000 students and staff per school by 2014-15 and 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18. The 2018 standard is 10 times greater than the 2015 standard. According to a few available studies, most states, including SREB states, do not fare well on the 2015 standard. According to a 2013 survey by the CoSN, 43 percent of school districts indicated that their schools do not meet the SETDA standard today. In 2011, an FCC study found that 80 percent of E-rate funded schools nationwide lacked adequate bandwidth for their current needs.
In 2012, 10 SREB states ranked below the national average on a broadband index developed by TechNet, a public policy group of leaders in the technology industry. TechNet’s analysis considers the pervasiveness of broadband access and fiber-optic infrastructure; typical network speeds throughout the state; and the number of people employed in information technology, communication technology and mobile applications development. This survey helps states assess their bandwidth adequacy within a range of technology contexts, including education and homes.
What if SREB states do not address or make adequate progress on this issue?
Without adequate high-speed broadband access, states will not be able to carry on with projects that are integral to key state education policies and initiatives that improve student learning. These initiatives include:
- Online instruction
- Online assessment for use with the Common Core State Standards or other state readiness standards and testing programs
- Instructional collaboration between K-12 and higher education, especially in STEM areas
- Internet-based tools that provide live, streaming video or audio of teachers in their classrooms to give evaluators the tools they need to observe teachers and assess their effectiveness
- Cloud-based services for securely storing and accessing high quantities of instructional and administrative data
- Support for new instructional models such as flipped classrooms, hybrid courses and massively open online courses (MOOCs)
- Online postsecondary degree/certificate programs, with all the attendant advisement, registration, library, and student support services involved
- University access to high-powered computers and databases for research
- Internet-based applications to manage campus security, energy and telecommunications to achieve cost savings and greater safety and security
- Accommodation of student-owned devices (the Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, trend) so that students can integrate the technology they have into academic learning environments
What measurements can SREB states use to assess progress?
Each SREB state should regularly undertake a complete assessment of current and future bandwidth needs. To make these appraisals, states can use the following measures and standards:
- Megabits per second: Schools and postsecondary institutions can assess their own needs and available bandwidth using surveys and bandwidth speed tests developed by various reliable entities. For example, the EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit K-12, advocacy organization and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the Common Core testing development groups, developed a bandwidth checker.
- SETDA Standards: Schools and institutions can compare their current data speed and capacity against the national standards set by SETDA. Current standards for K-12 are 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014-15 and 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18. (Postsecondary bandwidth needs vary depending on institutional mission.)
- State Broadband Index: TechNet measures states’ overall broadband environment for its State Broadband Index. The measures it uses can be helpful to states in establishing measures for their own analyses.
- Percent of households that do not have access to fiber optic broadband
- Home adoption of Internet connectivity
- Percent of jobs in information and communication technologies
- Percent of jobs in applications development
- Network speeds in the state based on information collected from public and private providers
What are some next steps SREB states can take?
Establish strategic broadband policy. Develop state-level broadband policy, using the guidelines established in the National Broadband Plan. Congress directed the FCC to develop the National Broadband Plan in 2009 to create a long-term national strategy to assess and meet the bandwidth needs of the K-12 and postsecondary communities in an affordable and sustainable manner.
Plan. Outline specific actions, timelines, assessments and funding models based on realistic data about schools’ use of data and digital technology and their outcomes to achieve strategic goals.
Inform. Share information about current and future bandwidth and applications needs for local and regional areas in state — all within a national context; inform state stakeholders of the shareable resource available to meet educational needs.
Collaborate. Work with local public and private commercial service providers and enlist the help of regional and national R&E networks to access affordable bandwidth through mutually beneficial agreements. A successful outcome for many states would be for R&E networks to serve education institutions — including K-12 schools — and for commercial providers to serve homes and businesses.