Report scrutinizes Internet access in schools after E-rate overhaul

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Millions of students have access to broadband in schools, but 23 percent of districts still do not meet the minimum broadband requirements set by the Federal Communications Commission – leaving about 21 million students without adequate connectivity for digital learning, according to a new report released Thursday.

The first “State of the States” report, which measures connectivity using FCC statistics, was unveiled by the national nonprofit EducationSuperHighway. Analysts surveyed more than 5,500 applicants to the agency’s E-rate program, which provides subsidies for broadband. The FCC raised the spending cap for Wi-Fi this year to about $4 billion from about $2 billion, and subsidies increased 45 percent, from $470 million in 2013 to nearly $680 million today, according to the report.

President Barack Obama has also pushed for increased, high-speed broadband in schools with his ConnectED program, aiming to get 99 percent of students connected to high-speed wireless within five years.

While the study found that service
providers gave school districts “dramatically more bits for their
broadband buck” over the past two years – with the median cost for broadband declining 50 percent from 2013 to 2015 – the number of schools unable to meet the FCC’s minimum connectivity goal of 100 kilobits per second per student remains significant. The report pointed to three main factors: a lack of access to fiber, affordability and limited school budgets.

According to the report, schools without access to fiber are 15 percent less likely to meet the FCC’s minimum target of 100 kilobits per second transmission speed per student. School districts meeting the FCC minimums pay around $5.07 per Mbps per student, while schools that aren’t meeting the minimum, on average, are paying more than double that rate. Districts that meet the goal have set aside $4.93 per student annually for Internet access, compared to just over $2 per students in districts that aren’t meeting the goal.

The report also highlighted states that are making significant progress in meeting the FCC’s benchmarks – even going above and beyond in some cases to make digital learning an integral part of every class.

Just two years ago, fewer than 300,000 teachers had connectivity to introduce digital tools into the classroom. Now, approximately 1.7 million teachers have broadband.

“Digital learning has been embraced by students and teachers across the country, but it can’t happen without first connecting all of our students to high-speed Internet,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway. “By working together to put a broadband foundation in place, we can ensure that every student, in every state has equal opportunity for a world-class education.”

Thirty-eight governors have made increased access to broadband a priority in their states, with Wyoming, Hawaii, South Dakota, Connecticut and Maine boasting at least 97 percent or higher connectivity.

“Students in rural communities who may not have the same traditional field trip opportunities as their urban and suburban counterparts are able to use the Internet to travel the globe, expand their cultural awareness by communicating with people in other parts of the world, and virtually participate in experiments and activities they would not otherwise be able to access easily,” the report states. “With the support of technology, students everywhere are able to interact with and learn core content in ways that they find most engaging.”

The authors also singled out Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, for spearheading Internet access efforts in New Mexico. The state legislature authorized $50 million over five years to improve K-12 broadband infrastructure, and a new program is underway that will put high-speed broadband in all schools by 2018.

But other schools, especially in rural communities, have a long way to go.

Because 92 percent of schools will need a fiber optic connection to reach the FCC’s 1 Mbps per student connectivity goal, the authors of the report recommended that 9,500 schools get connected to fiber. “We estimate that it will cost approximately $1 billion to connect these schools, a number well within the E-rate program’s budget,” according to the report.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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