By Benjamin Herold
More than 44 million students now learn in classrooms with high-speed internet connections, up from just 4 million five years ago, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit broadband advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.
The group’s 2018 State of the States report says such “incredible progress” puts the U.S. on the cusp of providing broadband connections to nearly every public school in the country, the goal set by President Barack Obama in 2013.
“Today, 98 percent of our public schools have next-generation fiber infrastructure, and 96 percent have enough internet connectivity to make digital learning available in their classrooms,” EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell wrote. “But our job is not done.”
A multi-pronged approach has generated the surge in school connectivity. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission overhauled the E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of internet access and other telecommunications services for schools and libraries. A bipartisan group of governors has leaned into the effort, providing state matching funds and technical support to schools seeking to upgrade their internet connections. And telecommunications companies have mostly bought into the idea of providing schools with substantially more bandwidth for marginally more money.
“It has certainly been a group effort,” said Reginald Leichty, the founding partner of Foresight Law + Policy, an education advisory and lobbying firm based in Washington. “The E-rate is not just a funding source. It’s also been a catalyst for action.”
Now, says Marwell of EducationSuperHighway, it’s time to focus on bringing high-speed internet to America’s hardest-to-connect schools, often located in rural and remote parts of the country. He also wants to see the K-12 sector embrace the more-ambitious target of 1 megabit-per-second, per-student connectivity, which the FCC and others have said will be necessary to keep digital learning advancing into the future.
Following are the eight big numbers to know from the 2018 State of the States report.
44.7 million connected
The number of U.S. K-12 public school students who now have access to 100 kilobits-per-student, per-second internet access in their classrooms, thus meeting the FCC’s minimum connectivity target. That’s up from 39.2 million students last year. How far has schools’ internet access come, and how far do they have left to go? “I’d say the majority of the work has been done, but the hardest work remains,” Marwell said.
98% are on target
The percentage of U.S. K-12 school districts meeting the FCC’s connectivity target. Back in 2013, this figure was just 30 percent.
1,356 schools are still off the grid
These are the schools still without fiberoptic connections, down from nearly 23,000 five years ago. Many broadband advocates describe this as the best, most affordable way to provide schools with high-speed internet access that can be increased over time; once a fiber-optic infrastructure is in place, it’s relatively cheap and easy to keep up with growing demand and expand the amount of bandwidth being delivered.
5 out of 347 requests for funding help were approved
The small number of E-rate “special construction” funding requests approved so far this year by the FCC and the Universal Service Administrative Company, the nonprofit that administers the E-rate and other universal-service programs, according to EducationSuperHighway. The applications are typically made by school districts that can’t find private providers willing to build affordable high-speed networks that reach their most far-flung schools. Instead, these districts want to use federal and state funds to underwrite the costs of networks they can either own or lease—a new strategy that the 2014 E-rate modernization effort sought to make possible. For the past 18 months, however, Education Week has been covering the disproportionately high rate of denials and delays for such applications. EducationSuperHighway decries the backlog as the result of unnecessary “red tape” and “capricious” decision-making. Others are slightly more optimistic. “Things are moving, just slowly,” said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, a leading E-rate consultant based in Edmunds, Okla.
$87 million estimated in upgrades
The amount of money that EducationSuperHighway estimates will be needed to upgrade 509 schools in the continental United States that it deems “unlikely to get the scalable broadband they need” via existing funding mechanisms. To cover the costs of these expensive fiber builds, the
group suggests tapping two existing funding sources: The E-rate program, for which total funding requests last year fell $1.4 billion below the program’s annual spending cap, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative known as the Community Connect Grant Program. The former is a strategy worth considering, said Leichty of Foresight Law + Policy. “If [the FCC] can accomplish that within the current regulatory structure, they should,” Leichty said. “If they don’t think they have the authority to do it, they should explain why not, and what it would take to get it done.”
$3.26: Falling cost of K-12 internet access
The median per-Mbps cost of broadband for U.S. schools—a dramatic, 85 percent decline from the $22-per-Mbps they paid back in 2013. According to EducationSuperHighway, two forces are driving the trend: transparency and competition. “School districts now know where to look for better deals,” Marwell said. “And we have absolutely seen more players in the marketplace being more aggressive about the amount of bandwidth they’re giving [schools] for their dollar.”
28 percent are equipped to use digital learning resources daily
The percentage of school districts already at the FCC’s more-ambitious goal of 1 Mbps, per student connectivity, which Marwell described as
necessary for allowing every teacher in a school to use digital learning resources every day. Even as districts meet minimum connectivity targets,
EducationSuperHighway found, they continue to add bandwidth. And smaller districts are leading the way: “These communities are aggressively adopting digital learning as a means of leveling the playing field,” the report says.
98 percent fast connections in Arkansas
The percentage of Arkansas schools capable of bringing these faster 1 Mbps, per-student connections to schools, making the state a model of where EducationSuperHighway believes school-connectivity efforts should head. Years ago, most Arkansas schools were connected via a statewide public network that relied on old copper lines, forcing many districts to purchase additional private bandwidth. But Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2015 began pushing a public-private partnership to upgrade the network to fiber, enlisting a total of 21 telecommunications providers in an effort that ended up providing schools 40 times the bandwidth for just 7 percent more money. “Since the increase of bandwidth, more schools are moving toward a one-to-one [computing] program in the classroom,” said Yessica Jones, the director of the Arkansas Department of Information Systems. “Educators are taking full advantage of the new learning technologies and educational resources.”
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