Networking & Wireless

Lack of Affordability Still Dogs District Broadband Goals

Education IT leaders still consider affordability the main obstacle to securing "robust connectivity" for their schools. That's been true for at least three years running. Nearly half (46 percent) cite the cost of recurring expenses as the biggest barrier; a solid third (34 percent) reference upfront expenses as a major problem. Almost a fifth (19 percent) pay $50 per megabit per second or more per month for their Internet connection. While that's down from 32 percent in 2014, it's still painful compared to the 36 percent of school districts that pay less than $5 per Mbps in 2015.

These results surfaced in the third annual "Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Infrastructure Survey." CoSN worked with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and marketing firm MDR to collect data from K-12 school leaders and technology directors nationwide. Responses were collected from 531 people in 48 states, representing urban, rural and suburban school systems, large, medium and small.

Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) reported that only one Internet provider delivered Internet service to school systems in their areas. In rural areas the lack of competition was even more pronounced — 54 percent reported just a single Internet provider. Not only does that affect affordability, CoSN researchers noted, it also decreases the ability for IT organizations to provide for network redundancy, which they consider a best practice.

The second big area of frustration is the lack of truly ample broadband capacity. CoSN references speeds first put forth by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and later adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, which defined sufficient short-term bandwidth as 100 Mbps per 1,000 students; the long-term goal is 1 Gbps per 1,000 students.

According to the survey, 23 percent of respondents have Internet bandwidth speeds of 10 Mbps or less for 1,000 students — just a tenth of that short-term goal. The same number of school systems said none of the schools in their districts could meet the short-term broadband goal. Sixty-six percent of respondents reported that their school system reached the short-term goal; 10 percent have reached the long-term goal.

The picture for off-campus connectivity reveals an area of struggle too. Three quarters of school leaders said they have no strategies for providing connectivity to students at home or after school. As the report noted, this lack of digital equity presents a "critical problem": "Students who lack Internet access service outside of the traditional school day cannot maximize learning opportunities in a digital environment."

Other findings of the survey include these:

  • School wireless networks lag: One in three districts said they still don't use current wireless industry standards (such as 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac);
  • Reliability isn't guaranteed. A quarter of districts reported "unplanned Internet downtime" for at least three days during the year;
  • Lit fiber is becoming the Internet transport mechanism of choice. More than 7 in 10 respondents said they're using lit fiber for WAN operations, an uptick from 46 percent last year. What this means, the report's authors stated, is that "many more schools have the capacity to provide broadband speeds to the school door"; and
  • APs are getting faster. More than 60 percent of school districts have typical a connection speed of 1 Gbps access.

"Education is going digital. Yet school system technology leaders face many challenges as they plan their education networks for the future," said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. "While progress is happening, policymakers and educators will need to keep their eyes focused on continued investments in robust, reliable education networks with broadband access and Wi-Fi to enable digital learning and address issues of digital equity."

The full report is available with registration on the CoSN Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.