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CoSN Survey: Schools Need More Broadband; E-Rate Needs More Funding

Almost every single district in the country expects to need additional Internet bandwidth and connectivity over the next 36 months as the Common Core and high-stakes assessments come online and more schools introduce BYOD and digital curriculum. They consider cost to be their biggest barrier in attaining that for both capital costs and on-going maintenance. In fact, four out of 10 school districts report that none of their schools can currently meet the goal of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) of Internet access per 1,000 students. This is the capacity promoted by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and the LEAD Commission Blueprint and promoted by ConnectED, President Obama's plan for digitally connecting schools. Only a quarter of districts say that all of their schools meet that 100Mbps goal.

These are some of the key findings to surface from the latest survey by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a national organization that helps schools build up their data communications infrastructure. CoSN's E-rate and Broadband Survey 2013 surveyed 29,000 district technology leaders and analyzed 469 responses from 44 states received within a two-week period for the results. (The organization reports a five percent margin of error in its findings.)

Ninety-three percent of districts said they believe that current E-rate funding doesn't fully meet their district needs. A common thread in E-rate discussions is that the federal program that helps schools fund certain types of technology-related projects would have to double from its current $2.3 billion fund to fully meet all of the demand that currently exists within schools. CoSN said it believes that understates true demand. "This survey shows that 29 percent of districts reported they did not apply for some E-rate funding because they expected insufficient funds," the report's authors stated.

Proposals that talk about a "per-pupil formula" as an answer to communications infrastructure funding would introduce their own problems, even taking into account some kind of weighted formula, said project lead Denise Atkinson-Shorey, head of e-Luminosity and a senior consultant for CoSN. The research found that rural districts pay six times as much as urban districts for their Internet transport, because they must transport over "greater" distances and often through "multiple carriers."

Very large districts — those with 50,000 students or more — pay more than three times what is spent by large or small districts on their WAN connections; the difference is even higher when compared to a medium-sized district. The reason? The cost to connect every school at the same speed is considerably higher when the district has dozens and dozens of buildings, as very large districts do. Ultimately, explained Shorey during a webinar that shared the survey's findings, "It would be really hard to address all those different kinds of pieces in a one-size-fits-all formula."

Another theme that emerged in the research was the need to be as cost effective as possible. For example, in spite of the economic benefits of participating in consortium buying, CoSN found that 44 percent of districts participated in those; only 37 percent use consortium buying for bandwidth purchases. "There is significant room for expanding consortium buying given the right incentives in the E-rate program," the report said.

CoSN found that 28 percent of responding districts dedicate the majority of their E-rate funding to supporting legacy telephone services. In fact, in a 2010 research project the FCC found that 61 percent of its Priority 1 funding went to pay for land lines. While the ConnectED project calls for shifting E-rate away from legacy infrastructure, such as land lines, CoSN also pointed out the need for E-rate to help districts fund the shift to newer forms of telecommunications, such as voice over IP (VoIP) supported on robust broadband and wireless infrastructure. According to CoSN, about 45 percent of districts haven't implemented VoIP; a "disproportionate" number of those are small and rural districts.

The report uncovered gaps in internal capacity within schools too. This type of work is covered under E-rate Priority II funding. Problems include wiring that is older and slower and a lack of wireless in classrooms.

Shorey recently returned from Portugal, where she said she learned that all of the schools there are connected with fiber, but the country didn't stop there. "They addressed internal connections, the backbone and wired and wireless that was in the building, and what happens within the classroom as well. Those internal connections have to be robust enough to handle the broadband connections we're delivering to it. If we don't do that, things won't work in the classroom, and teachers and students will be frustrated."

To achieve the same end-to-end success in American schools, CoSN reported, E-rate funding is needed for both capital investments and on-going expenses. Shorey said that given a minute of United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's time to share the results of the survey, she would emphasize this particular point to him. "I would tell him that it's important to have a strategic end-to-end solution — that you can't just buy wireless for the school, you can't just buy broadband. You need to have a broadband pipe all the way from the student in the classroom to the Internet itself. We need to look at on-going and capital costs. You can't just pick and choose some part [of it]. We need to have a program that is end-to-end and strategic. It's got to be that way or we really won't be able to deliver what we want."

CoSN used the occasion of its research to remind the education community that E-rate is open to any not-for-profit school or district. "Even if you only get 20 or 30 cents on the dollar, that's a significant amount of money coming back," noted Shorey. "There are E-rate consultants that will help you with the application process, at least the first few times through, because it is kind of daunting. And the money you get back the first few years may only [pay for] your consultant to help you with your process; but it's certainly money that's available to help your students, and I would take advantage of it."

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