School Broadband Woefully Slow: How Do We Fix It?

By Joan Engebretson June 16, 2014

When President Obama, just under a year ago, announced an initiative to bring high-speed broadband to the nation’s schools, no one had measured the status quo. But school broadband research and advocacy group EducationSuperHighway has now done that – and what the group found is that schools have a lot of catching up to do.

The median bandwidth per school in the U.S. is 33 Mbps, according to the advocacy group – a far cry from the 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps per school target that Obama said he wanted to achieve for 99 percent of the nation’s schools within five years.

This doesn’t mean Obama’s goal is a bad one. The EducationSuperHighway argues that a one device-per-student learning model could help American students gain the skills they need for the modern age. And to support that, schools need a high-bandwidth connection into the school – and from the service provider’s central office to the Internet.

The question is whether the nation can afford to make the investment to meet those requirements. Education Superhighway looked at that as well.

The cost of school broadband

According to the advocacy group, the median cost of broadband connectivity (WAN + Internet access) for a single school district is $25 per Mbps, but the quartile of districts with the lowest per-Mbps cost pay just $4 per Mbps – one-sixth the median cost. And school districts in the quartile with the highest per-Mbps rates pay more than $133 per Mbps – more than five times what the median district pays.

EducationSuperHighway estimates that the average district should be able to lower its cost per Mbps from $15-$22 today to less than $7 in five years if it follows the advocacy group’s recommendations, outlined in the next section.

The telecom industry- funded Universal Service schools and libraries program, also known as the E-rate program, pays part of a school district’s broadband connectivity costs. But schools still have to pay a substantial portion of those costs – and the research suggests that there are wide variations in schools’ ability to pay for connectivity.

Schools that are meeting current connectivity goals are spending about $7 per student per year from their annual budgets for Internet access – about four times more than the $1.59 annually per student that schools not meeting current goals are spending.

Recommendations

EducationSuperHighway makes several recommendations for how to meet Obama’s five-year broadband connectivity goals, including:

  • Focus E-rate funding on broadband. Currently about half of E-rate spending does not go toward broadband but instead is used for unrelated services such as voice service, email and web hosting. Making this change would free up about $11,000 annually per school.
  • Use fiber to connect schools because the cost per megabit is substantially lower than for copper- and wireless-based alternatives. Where available, dark fiber can yield particularly large savings.
  • Lower the cost of bandwidth by aggregating demand within and across school districts, increasing price transparency and increasing competition. One way to increase competition is to purchase connectivity to an Internet point of presence from a research and education network.

Despite these changes, however, the advocacy group estimates that the E-rate funding cap would need to be increased to $5 billion per year to meet Obama’s five-year goals. That would more than double the amount of money spent annually on the program today.

In an era when almost any proposed spending increase encounters major opposition, this could be a hard sell. But the first step toward overcoming opposition is to be prepared with rebuttals.




Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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