IT Trends | Feature

Bandwidth for All

With more and more students using mobile devices for learning, districts are finding creative ways to provide enough bandwidth for everyone to do their work outside of school.

The Internet has reached virtually every American school, but problems of bandwidth and connectivity persist. Despite more than 17 years of government subsidy via E-rate, a recent Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey revealed that a whopping 99 percent of districts still "needed more bandwidth." Rich Kaestner, project director for Washington, DC-based CoSN, attributed the bandwidth shortfall to a relentless need to feed the digital beast. Digital curricula, 1-to-1 programs, bring your own technology (BYOT) initiatives and Common Core textbooks are driving a growing crowd of students and teachers online, both at school and at home. But what can schools do about those homes that don't have Internet connectivity?

'A Big Distance for a Little Money'
In the rural areas of America, bandwidth problems revolve around price and availability. According to Kaestner, "Providers are not anxious to cover rural areas because it's a big distance for a little money. To make it worthwhile, providers have to charge more, or have some sort of incentive to provide service."

While the E-rate program, funded by federal phone taxes, has helped to bridge this financial gap, John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, said he believes that the program must adjust to changing times and burgeoning need. In 2013 alone, Funds For Learning estimated, 8,169 rural school districts applied for E-rate funds. These applicants represent an enrollment of 11.77 million students at 33,693 school sites. Harrington said, "The challenge that rural schools (and every school that receives E-rate funding) are facing is that the program has not been adjusted significantly since its inception. We've seen the demand for Internet access triple, while the program itself has only increased about five percent in terms of funding support."

According to Harrington, many rural schools are looking to expand bandwidth by installing fiber optics, either between buildings or across parts of the community. "They have to negotiate right of way, or even crossing rail road tracks," he said. "That's where it takes a lot of work and leadership in the local community. It may take five years. In many cases, the community may look to bond funds or other sources in addition to the E-rate program to get that funding in place."

E-Rate Doesn't Hit Home
Cell phone data plans, apps for tablets, and home Internet access capabilities have changed radically since the inception of E-rate. And yet, as of 2014, E-rate dollars may not be used to help students connect to the Web at home. In an era of online textbooks and online homework assignments, lack of home access can be a major problem.

When technology experts at Barrington 220 School District (IL), went looking for solutions, they spoke with Comcast representatives about Internet Essentials, a two-year-old program that has provided Internet access for 4,000 school districts and 250,000 low-income households.

Tom Leonard, superintendent of Barrington 220, a 9,200-student district in northwest Chicago, eventually embraced the Comcast program that offers significantly reduced monthly Internet fees for families with children on free and reduced lunch. Even though families can keep the monthly $9.95 monthly Essentials rate until the youngest child in the family reaches 18, there were still problems.

"For some families, $9.95 a month is still too much," Leonard said. "Also, one hard-wired computer per family doesn't necessarily work in our world anymore. If I'm giving kids iPads and MacBook Airs to bring home, those are not hard-wired devices. They work in a wireless environment. Even if you did hardwire one of them, you can only have one computer on that hard-wired system at a time. You need a router."

Comcast eventually helped Leonard to work with Netgear, a manufacturer willing to donate routers to every family in the district with children on free and reduced lunch — about 750 routers in all. "We solved most of the problem," said Leonard. "Comcast would do the wiring free, and then our families would be hooked to a free router."

The only issue left was the $9.95 a month. "A community group called the Barrington Area Development Council stepped up and said they would privately raise the money to pay the $9.95 per month charge for at least the next two years for all of these families," reported Leonard.

Even with all elements completely free, some families in the district are still hesitant about accepting the new technology. The reluctance came as a surprise, but Barrington has taken measures to learn their reasons. "Some of our families in poverty are culturally new to our environment, and they didn't necessarily know what they were missing in terms of Internet access," Leonard said. "We've had to have some parent/community meetings to explain the benefits of this, because even if something is free, if you don't understand there is a benefit to it, you may not want it. The schools district's primary objective is making access available to students who are working through our educational program, but I think there is a collateral benefit to the parents, who may start getting on the Internet at other times to do other things."

Handing Out Hotspots
In the community of Forsyth County, GA, the situation is different. The community is considered somewhat affluent, with a mostly suburban landscape, but also with wide swaths of open space that are deemed rural. According to Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology at Forsyth County Schools, "Sometimes it's almost worse when you do have a population that is affluent because then it looks like you can't possibly need any help because you have money." Even in a district like hers, though, "The reality is that the difference between the haves and have-nots is significant."

When Forsyth launched its BYOT program, many children brought as many as three devices to school. Kindergartners with an iPad, iPod touch and laptop were not unusual. Even among the less fortunate, Hobson contended, attaining devices is not the biggest hurdle. "Many of them still manage to get a device," she said, "but what they don't have is Internet access at home, and we know that is a real problem educationally."

In the fast-growing county of Forsyth, which includes the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, there has been an influx of people coming from other countries, and many come with little or no money for monthly Internet fees. This makes it difficult for their kids to do their work in such a tech-centric district. "We don't buy textbooks," explained Hobson. "Our movement is away from traditional learning materials, which makes it all the more difficult for some families."

To help families keep up, Hobson and her colleagues work with the company Kajeet, which offers a portable WiFi hot spot called the SmartSpot. Michael Flood, Kajeet's vice president of education markets, explained that the device essentially "lights up" a WiFi hot spot in a a 30-foot radius around itself. He added that SmartSpots are password-protected and "connect to the 3G or 4G mobile broadband network, depending on what the network is capable of in the area that you're connecting."

All of the traffic that comes across the SmartSpot is routed though the company's network infrastructure, which is closely integrated with each school's carrier. This means that every SmartSpot user is subject to school Internet policy. "We don't want to pay for kids to watch Netflix and Hulu on the weekend," said Flood.

For rural schools short on funds, Kajeet can aggregate demand to lower the cost per user. Whereas most wireless carriers sell their services on monthly rate plans, with overage charges if users exceed data limits, Flood said, "Our model doesn't work that way. If a school comes to us and says, 'We want to deploy 1,000 of these,' we say, 'Well, what do you think you're going to need to use over the next years,' and we structure that as one aggregated purchase." Schools start with a certain amount of data — say, 10 terabytes — in their account, and all users draw from that balance. Devices that aren't being used don't cost anything, and there is no fixed monthly subscription fee. When it comes to the dreaded overage charges, Flood said, "If people are going over, you are not paying some higher overage rate. It's just that that user is using more than another user."

For her part, Hobson said she believes that Kajeet and similar solutions can be applied to other rural districts across the country as part of a plan to expand bandwidth to the home. "This may not be the solution for every single family that does not have Internet access, but it does work for some," she said, adding that she has been impressed by how little frivolous Internet use she has seen. "I am blown away by what kind of usage we are getting. They are accessing our learning platform and getting to the materials that teachers are posting."

When it came to funding, Forsyth County relied on private donors to pay for the SmartSpots. "A local doctor and his wife here in our community felt moved to give, and they did fundraising and identified BYOT as their focus," Hobson said. "They had a golf tournament, plus a raffle. We were very fortunate to have them donate about $30,000 to us for the continuation of BYOT Equity."

Whether in an urban or rural setting, technology seems to regularly outpace funding, and John Harrington said he thinks that will be the case for a long time to come. "The Internet bandwidth will never be enough. I've seen presentations where there's a hologram in front of you, and it's a professor giving a lecture, and it looks like he is actually standing in front of you.... These sorts of things take tremendous amounts of bandwidth. It will never be 'mission accomplished.' "

Hobson said she agrees that the fight to get Internet access into the homes of all children will likely be a yearly struggle, but she said it is worth the effort. "I want every child who attends a Forsyth County School to have the same advantages and learning opportunities — the same experiences," she said. "Students who do not have connectivity outside of the school day are not having equal experiences. They are disadvantaged. Anything we can do to level that playing field, we have an obligation to do it."