The digital divide is showing real signs of narrowing–but there are still 6.5 million students in under-connected schools, according to a new report by the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway1, which analyzes data from E-rate applications. The overall outlook in the 2017 State of the States report2 appears rosy: 94 percent of school districts meet the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum connectivity standards, and 88 percent of schools self-report that they have sufficient Wi-Fi in their classrooms. In the past year alone, more than 5 million students caught up with the minimum connectivity threshold, defined by the FCC as at least 100 kbps of internet bandwidth per student. Overall, more than 39 million students enjoy bandwidth speeds to support digital learning. Mostly the report attributes the connectivity gains to E-rate modernization, which increased overall funding for school broadband projects and took steps to make it easier for schools to purchase fiber networks. E-rate incentives have also encouraged states to put up $200 million in matching funds for fiber in 18 states, mostly under Republican governors and state legislators.
But the report stresses there is still work to be done to connect more than 2,000 schools that lack fiber connections. More than three-fourths of schools without fiber are located in rural communities. These schools either haven’t requested infrastructure upgrades via E-rate, or are located in areas traditionally considered unviable or unprofitable for internet service providers. Under the Trump administration, the FCC has also reduced its role in getting schools connected, says Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, in an interview with EdSurge. “We need to see the FCC take a much more proactive approach to getting fiber to these schools. We have seen a real change in the FCC approval rates for these projects.
We’ve seen more red tape, more questions and more rejections of these projects.” Still, all things considered, Marwell is “pretty optimistic both from the Wi-Fi front and the connectivity front that we’re going to get all the way there.” The country’s schools are already two years ahead of connectivity benchmarks set by the FCC in 2014, which aimed to get every school connected by 2020. Around 90 percent of districts with under-connected schools could close the gap by benefiting from so-called “peer deals,” where they receive the same rate for internet service that a district of similar size is already getting in their state. According to the report, 58 percent of those districts wouldn’t even have to switch service providers. Peer deals generally require districts to do a bit of research into what other districts are paying, either by asking around or through price transparency tools, such as EducationSuperHighway’s Compare & Connect3 or the Universal Service Administrative Company’s open data platform4. Districts can then use that information as leverage in negotiating new deals. “I believe the peer deals are going to happen because service providers want them to happen,” says Marwell, noting that providers have effectively cut broadband costs for schools by about 80 percent during the last four years. For schools in locations not covered by fiber, the one-time construction costs can be prohibitive.
Yet the report notes nearly all of those schools can be connected through a mixture of state-level matching funds and existing funding already allocated to E-rate.
The Minimum Is Not Enough At many districts, the 100 kbps per student minimum isn’t enough to support the high bandwidth use that comes along with modern one-to-one and bring-your-own-device programs. According to the report, 85 percent of the nation’s largest districts are buying more than the minimum 100 kbps for their students. Of the districts already meeting connectivity benchmarks, the median bandwidth per student is 411 kbps–and growing about 30 percent each year. Though even that might not be enough going forward. “Back in 2014, when the FCC modernized the E-rate program they set 100 kbps as the minimum threshold, with a longer term goal of getting to getting to 1 Mbps per student, as well as a fiber optic connection to every school and an access point in every classroom,” Marwell says. “We think those are a good set of targets even today.”
The number of districts meeting the 1 Mbps moonshot is still under 25 percent, but “it’s 3x where it was a couple of years ago,” Marwell says. Even when these benchmarks are hit and every school can boast a fiber connection, it won’t be nearly enough to close the digital divide. “The truth of the matter is that broadband to schools is not just about how much bandwidth is getting to the district office, which is what that 100 kbps measure is about,” Marwell says. There’s still the matter of successfully routing that internet access into classrooms and then providing enough devices for students to take advantage of the increased access–to say nothing of the millions of students without reliable internet connections at home.
But first things first, Marwell says. “The way we approach it is you’ve got to start by getting these schools wired, and in that we’re making tremendous progress.”
- ^ EducationSuperHighway (www.educationsuperhighway.org)
- ^ 2017 State of the States report (stateofthestates.educationsuperhighway.org)
- ^ Compare & Connect (www.compareandconnectk12.org)
- ^ open data platform (data.usac.org)