Update on Internet access from Ed Superhighway

by Kathryn Kennedy

Student access to the Internet in K-12 schools has grown rapidly over the past five years. Based on data from the EducationSuperHighway, more than 44 million students have high-speed Internet connections in their learning environments today compared to 4 million just five years ago. As mentioned in the recently published 2018 State of the States report, a call to action from President Obama in 2013 for all public schools in the U.S. to have broadband connectivity has been a driver of this major increase. From there, the FCC updated the E-rate program, providing schools with money to help pay for connectivity. In addition to E-rate, matching funds were provided by select states, and some telecommunications groups helped to give schools deals on their connectivity packages.

Some schools are still not yet connected; these schools typically fall within remote areas. The report found that 4% of schools (1,356 schools) are considered “off grid,” meaning they do not have the fiber optic capabilities that the other 96% of schools have. In these “off grid” schools, the current connectivity options being recommended would not work because the infrastructure at the schools is not robust enough for the base-level connectivity plans, and the plan that would work could not be covered by the funding that is available. This poses an unfortunate access and equity situation that is very much dependent on the location of the student. Continued exploration of funding streams, including grants like the U.S.D.A.’s Community Connect Grant Program, are being considered. There’s a need to level the playing field so that all students have access to the learning they need. The encouraging piece is that the percentage of schools that meet the target connectivity set by the FCC went from 30% to 98% in just five years. With more and more schools focused on improving connectivity, internet providers have had to be transparent about what they can offer, and because schools have options, they have driven up the competition between providers. Consequently, prices have lowered significantly to about $3.26 per-Mbps cost of broadband, as compared to $22 five years ago.

Schools are needing to be creative to get what they need for connectivity, especially in rural and remote areas. A recent report published by the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, Digital Learning Strategies for Rural America – A scan of policy and practice in K-12 education, shared stories from rural schools and districts, including the common challenges and unique solutions they face on a daily basis. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a quarter of the population of U.S. K-12 students are living and attending schools in remote areas

Of course, having Internet access is necessary but not nearly sufficient for students to have access to high-quality digital learning opportunities. In our research for the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning study, we found several reports that touched on the idea that online tools and resources could support student access and equity but stopped short of exploring what such online programs might entail. The boxes and wires are necessary, but in many ways the hard work is just getting started when schools get connected.