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Report: High-speed internet lags in rural schools

Good news: E-rate will provide schools with funding to build fiber networks
Between 9,000 and 10,000 schools, mostly in rural areas, do not have high-speed internet connections. (Click map to enlarge)
Between 9,000 and 10,000 schools, mostly in rural areas, do not have high-speed internet connections. (Click map to enlarge)

High-speed internet access increased substantially in classrooms over the past two years, a recent report says. But 21 million students, many in rural areas, remain without reliable broadband connections in the classroom, according to the “2015 State of the States” report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of students meeting the 100-kbps-per-student threshold that the FCC and others agreed works for digital learning in the classroom,” says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, which focuses on upgrading internet access in public schools. In 2013, about 5 million students were connected, compared to 25 million in 2015.

To meet the goal of 100-kbps-per-student, most districts need a fiber optic connection from their internet provider. But between 9,000 and 10,000 schools, mostly in rural areas, do not have such connections due to their smaller, remote populations, Marwell says.

However, rural CIOs have a new solution: In 2016, E-rate will provide schools with funding to build fiber networks that were previously available only through local providers. The modernized E-rate program, updated in 2014, is designed to increase options for schools and to encourage competition among vendors, says John Harrington, CEO of E-rate consulting firm Funds for Learning.

“The school can be a competitor,” Harrington says. “It brings pressure on the competitive landscape because vendors know schools have this option. If their service is too expensive, the school may built it itself.”

Districts applying for E-rate funds must submit competitive bidding documents by April 1, and have a contract and vendor in place by April 29.

The nationwide goal is to fund 75 fiber optic network projects this year, Harrington says. The most effective rural applicants are those marshaling resources with other community institutions, such as libraries and hospitals, he adds.

Harrington and Marwell say districts should contact other local providers and school systems to compare service costs. EducationSuperHighway recently launched a portal, Compare & Connect K12, that lets districts view what other school systems in their area purchase and pay.

“The key to getting more broadband is more competition,” Marwell says. “If you don’t do a little work to ask your neighbors who they’re buying from and seeing if those folks will serve you, you’re doing a disservice.”