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Education Needs More Reliable Broadband Access

Published:  July 16, 2012
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Photo licensed CC by Tim McCune: http://goo.gl/YxmFh

As the presidential campaign heats up, both candidates are talking about class size, school choice, curricula, testing, and even the use of digital tools for learning. Yet, we rarely hear about the state of broadband access in our nation’s schools.

In May 2012 the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a compelling report on high-speed broadband access (100 Mbps or greater) to US K-12 schools. Increasing broadband speeds are creating exciting new opportunities in education, like school-based online collaboration tools and distance learning empowered by high quality video conferencing. But for too many school systems these options are not available. Quoting a 2010 FCC survey, the SETDA study notes that 80 percent of schools reported that that their current broadband connections did not fully meet their needs.

That survey also showed that in many cases, schools’ broadband connections only provide about as much bandwidth as residential connections. Yet a school’s connectivity needs resemble those of a medium to large sized private business and far exceed those of a traditional residential home connection.

Schools must be able to support students and teachers utilizing online tools simultaneously; especially when it comes to education, broadband is a utility as important as electricity or water. As a SETDA spokesperson pointed out in a recent article:

"Students shouldn't go to school and wonder if they turn on the light, is it going to dim the light in another room?" [Christine Fox] said. "They also shouldn't wonder, if they go to download a video, is it going to slow the access to the classroom across the hall?"

Residential broadband connections are designed using the assumption that multiple subscribers will not be using the service simultaneously in one location. This is one reason subscription speeds are marketed as “up to” X Mbps, whereas in practice they are often slower due to congestion.

But schools and business require so called “dedicated” connections, where bandwidth is guaranteed and comes with a higher quality of service.  Schools with foreign language classes that want to conduct a video conference with students in other counties need this kind of high bandwidth, along with reliability.  School systems also have a growing need for a suite of applications known as “enterprise services,” such as the ability to transfer large data files for storage at an offsite location. Unfortunately, educational and technical opportunities are lacking because the broadband infrastructure currently connecting many schools is woefully out of date or the services they need are priced way beyond what school budgets can accommodate.

The SETDA report concludes with future bandwidth targets for schools: 100 Mbps per 1000 students and staff by the 2014/15 school year, and 1000 Mbps (or 1 Gbps) by 2017/18. One recommendation they give to policy makers for how to reach these targets is more federal funding for the E-Rate program, a part of the Universal Service Fund devoted to providing subsidies to schools and libraries on their telecommunication bills.

However, SETDA’s recommendations do not mention the role municipal broadband networks can play in helping schools get the truly high-speed bandwidth they need. In order to better meet the needs of their communities, several cities have begun building their own broadband infrastructure to connect their schools, police and fire departments, hospitals, and in some cases even residents, to a locally owned and operated fiberoptic network.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a leader in the field of municipal broadband research, has released two reports this year which cover the topic of school broadband connections. The first report documents the three leading municipal broadband networks in the country, located in Bristol, VA; Lafayette, LA; and Chattanooga, TN.  In each of these cities the local municipal broadband network provides internet service to its local school district.  The result is that all schools in each of the three cities already meet SETDA’s 100 Mbps bandwidth target. Bristol, VA even exceeds them with their schools connected at 1 Gbps.

The second report examines Martin County, FL. With a 10 year service agreement expiring, Comcast was demanding a monthly rate increase of 814 percent (from $12,075 to $98,261 after five years) to continue to provide network connectivity to Martin County government sites. Rather than pay these exorbitant fees, Martin County decided to partner with other local entities, including the school board, to build its own municipal broadband network. Martin County schools now have 1 Gbps broadband connections that cost less than their previous, slower service.

The key to providing schools with truly high-speed broadband is to empower local communities to control their own networking infrastructure. Municipal broadband networks provide a locally owned and operated solution for networking needs, since it is up to community leaders to decide when, how and where to upgrade services. School districts should not be forced to wait for private internet service providers to tally up the costs and benefits of investing in communication infrastructure. The quality of our children’s education is at stake.

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