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100 Mbps the New Minimum for 'Critical' Broadband Services in Schools

A new report is calling on the federal government "to increase funding options" for high-speed broadband, statewide networks, schools' broadband capacity, access to broadband in community centers, and aid to help low-income families have broadband access at home.

Slow Internet and network connections in schools pose a barrier to students getting the most out of technologies for teaching and learning, according to a new report that set targets for faster broadband in schools.

According to the report, released Monday by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, 100 megabits per second--for every 1,000 students and staff members--should be the minimum Internet access speed at every school in the United States. The Glen Burnie, MD-based group recommended that federal, state, and local leaders work together to achieve that target by the 2014-2015 school year.

The report set the target for wide-area network connections within every school district at 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff. Internet and WAN speeds should be 10 times faster by the 2017-2018 school year.

Although most schools have some level of broadband service, puny data capacity levels are making it obsolete, the report suggested.

"Looking ahead four years, there are tremendous changes coming down the pike" that will make broadband "critical for learning," said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of SETDA, at a panel discussion accompanying the report's release in Washington May 21. No single application will dominate, but rather dozens of applications will be critical, with the need for faster broadband driven by the increased number of concurrent users, he said.

John Miller, the assistant director of instructional technology for the state of West Virginia, ticked off a list of broadband-intensive trends, such as personalized learning, online adaptive assessments, and the blending of digital and conventional content. And by the 2014-2015 school year, several panelists noted, states that are implementing the Common Core State Standards will need to be ready for technology-delivered tests, which will put much greater demands on school networks--and so will state adoptions of digital textbooks, which is already taking place and inevitable, Levin said in an interview.

Students will need better out-of-school access to digital resources for learning as well, Levin said, adding that broadband is also essential to achieve "the nation's college and career agenda."

The 34-page report called for the federal government "to increase funding options" for high-speed broadband, statewide networks, schools' broadband capacity, access to broadband in community centers, and aid to help low-income families have broadband access at home.

At the meeting, Karen Cator, the United States Department of Education's director of the Office of Education Technology, praised the report, noting that the setting of specific broadband targets "goes past" the 2010 National Education Technology Plan, while being consistent with many of its findings.

On the issue of federal funding, some speakers cautioned against merely reallocating existing federal support for technology in schools. Barbara Pryor, a senior legislative assistant to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (WV), a stalwart supporter in Congress of the $2.25 billion federal E-rate program, said schools' demand for E-rate discounts for telecommunications services exceeds the available funds, and that the Democratic senator would oppose diverting "a dime" of the E-rate toward technologies and pilots that are not eligible under current rules.

Panelists acknowledged that the schools' appetite for the latest data-intensive technologies would likely rise as fast as the available network bandwidth, with usage continually bumping up against the outer limits of broadband capacity.

But Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director for Maine's department of education, said that, while his state has increased the capacity of its statewide broadband network to support its school laptop program, "costs have been relatively flat, while demand increased." Utah, which also has a statewide network for education, has had the same experience, Mao said. "It's the nature of technology."

Despite the important federal and state roles, local school districts have great responsibilities to support broadband upgrades with their policies and budgets, said Andrew Zuckerman, the director of instructional service of the Lawrence Township Public School, in New Jersey. In an interview his said his district's leaders wanted to ensure that students used school-provided technologies only for educational or appropriate purposes; the district relies on appropriate-use policies and technologies that generate reports for school administrators or parents to review. But there are gray areas, he said, where the district relies on parental supervision.

SETDA's Levin gave the meeting a sneak preview of a tool that may add to local discussions about the local broadband capacity: a Web-based speed meter that can give a school in any part of the country an instant read-out of the speed of its Internet connection. Levin did not give a launch date but said work on the tool was nearly complete.

The 34-page report, "The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs," can be downloaded at setda.org.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. Barbara Pryor is a senior legislative assistant to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, not to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, as previously identified. [Last updated May 22, 2012 at 10:27 a.m.] --David Nagel

 

About the Author

Andrew Trotter is an education reporter based in Washington, DC. He can be reached at atrotter@aol.com.

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