Are Our Schools on the Verge of a Broadband Crisis?

OPINION

Are Our Schools on the Verge of a Broadband Crisis?

In conducting research on America’s digital schools this past year, I found a major shortfall between budgeted bandwidth and the estimated need for bandwidth. In fact, I believe the shortfall may be as much as four times the budgeted amount by 2011. So here is the question: Is there a broadband crisis in public schools today?

  • Tom Greaves, a thought leader in educational technology who is also my partner in creating the research report America’s Digital Schools 2006, says yes, and wrote a detailed explanation of the issue in our new report.
  • Many district leaders at the Florida Association of Educational Data Systems (FAEDS) conference in Florida agreed in September.
  • Many software and print publishers agreed at the AAP/SIIA (Association of American Publishers/Software Information Industries Association) Ed Tech Summit in October.
  • The North Carolina State Department of Education has a number of online articles related to this issue at here.

What are they saying? That the increased demand for internet access in the classroom will require more bandwidth than has been budgeted. The 475 K-12 technology directors who responded to America’s Digital Schools 2006 survey estimate their current bandwidth is 2.90 kilobits per second (Kbps) per student and report their expected bandwidth need for 2011 is 9.57 Kbps per student.

The America’s Digital Schools Team, however, estimates that bandwidth needs will be closer to 40 kilobits per second per student—a 14-fold increase. Bandwidth requirements will grow substantially due to the addition of schools’ non-student internet requirements, more online learning with students and teachers, new applications on and off the internet, and higher expectations for technology use in schools.

If these conservative estimates projected by the technology directors in the survey apply to your district, it might be a good time to raise this issue with your management team before it’s too late. In fact, our estimates of 40 Kbps may be conservative.

Some Q&A Might Help:

Q: This sounds exaggerated to me. But we should be fine if we’ve already budgeted a three-fold increase in bandwidth over the next three years, right?
A: You may be fine if your usage doesn’t expand due to the increase in internet usage for:

    • an increase in the number of student devices, such as a 1:1 initiative
    • collaborative learning projects with student-created projects incorporating links to internet sites
    • an administrative increase in use of the internet
    • growth in web-based applications

Our estimates say that usage is budgeted to grow four-fold in the next five years, but that actual usage will grow 14-fold.

Q: But we’ve leased our T-1 line with a hefty discount from E-Rate. Isn’t E-Rate still alive and well?
A: E-Rate appears to be safe for the foreseeable future, but E-Rate is capped and not unlimited. At some point, the funds available through E-Rate won’t cover the additional required bandwidth.

Q. What about Internet2 and Web 2.0? I thought they were going to help.
A: There are many thoughtful people suggesting that reserving some portion of Internet2 for educational institutions could reduce the contention for bandwidth. However, this is not a short-term solution in terms of budgeting for bandwidth. In most cases, Internet2 doesn’t go all the way to the school, causing a “last-mile” problem. Web 2.0 may result in some new thinking, but innovations to reduce bandwidth needs aren’t projected for the near term. In fact, Web 2.0 applications will increase total bandwidth required at the school level.

    Example: A progressive high school implementing 1:1 computing in 2011

    • This example illustrates how the suggested 40 Kbps per student is only an average number. As this example shows, many schools will require more than 40 Kbps per student.
    • Number of students: 1,500
    • Number of computers: 1,600 (includes 100 staff computers)
    • Number of computers being used for regular educational internet access, as opposed to locally hosted applications: 1,600
    • Percentage of the time these 1,600 machines are actually accessing the internet: 35%
    • Usage is driven by substantial use of online learning courses and activities, students and teachers moving to digital content, and a new classroom style where students are encouraged to have their computers on and accessing appropriate content. The primary source of content (90%) is electronic.
    • Schools host student-created projects on their web servers.
    • Schools host online learning applications for students, parents, and the community. The peak load for school-hosted applications is after school hours, which helps diminish the peak demand.
    • Minimum acceptable bandwidth per computer while surfing: 150 Kbps.
      This number is higher than the 2006 number, reflecting the trend toward more bandwidth-intensive applications and webpages with more graphics, Flash animation, etc. It also reflects the fact that high school applications and web-browsing activities are more complex and bandwidth-intensive than those of elementary schools. This speed is about 10 percent of a typical low-end home DSL account, which may lead to disengaged students or incomplete assignments. These calculations do not include other school bandwidth requirements, such as administrative applications, assessment applications, and student information system downloads, which can add up significantly.

    The required bandwidth per student would be:

    (1,600 students and faculty) * (35% average internet usage) * (150 Kbps acceptable browsing bandwidth) / (1,600 students and faculty) = 52.5 Kbps per student

    The total student load would be:

    (1,600 students and faculty) * (52.5 Kbps per student) = 84 megabits per second.

    The bandwidth on a per-student basis is 72 Kbps per student

Jeanne Hayes is president of The Hayes Connection, an education market research and database firm in Littleton, CO, and founder of Quality Education Data Inc., a Scholastic company. She also assists RedRock Reports, a funding consulting service, in making known their consulting services regarding funding opportunities.

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