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Schools bulk up their internet speed

Lower prices and federal E-rate assistance allow schools to to future-proof their networks
Source: The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, SEDTA (DAmag.me/bbd)
Source: The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, SEDTA (DAmag.me/bbd)

When Hopatcong Borough Schools started a 1-to-1 project that distributed 1,450 Chromebooks to its students and staff in 2016, leaders in the northern New Jersey district wondered whether they had enough bandwidth to satisfy the expected demand.

They worried the district’s 300Mbps connection would slow down or crash, making the new computers about as pedagogically useful as paperweights.

The story has a happy ending: The district inexpensively upped its online access allotment to 1Gbps by taking advantage of reduced prices offered by a local provider. “Now everyone has as much bandwidth as they need,” says Kyle Bisignani, the district’s lead technologist.

Educators and students, of course, increasingly rely on the internet for everything from online curriculum and research to playing edu-games and posting grades. With teachers and administrators focused on the hardware and software, the online connection—one of the most important components of a school’s digital infrastructure—is sometimes neglected.

But with bandwidth getting cheaper and faster—and the availability of substantial federal E-rate assistance—there’s little reason for a school or district to exceed their data capacity. The drop in cost has motivated administrators to beef up their networks to handle the future demands that will come with the ever-growing power of technology.

More megabits

Adding capacity may cost only a little more—and sometimes less. The typical school in 2015 had access to 449 Mbps of bandwidth that cost an average of $4,527 per month.

By 2016, 42 percent of schools upgraded their connection speed to an average of 1.34 Gbps, at $4,862 per month, according to the report “2016 State of the States” by the San Francisco-based EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that seeks to make sure every classroom has sufficient bandwidth.

In other words, the average cost of buying a megabit per second of data access went down from $10 to $3.60 per month.

In early 2014, Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District’s chief technology officer, Joe McBreen, took advantage of these bargain-basement data prices. The district’s 1 Gbps line was just about maxed out and its schools needed more capacity.

At any particular time, the St. Vrain Valley’s 52 facilities had 40,000 systems connected to its data access line through its WiFi network. To boost the district’s data connection, he went to the local municipal electricity company, Longmont Power & Communications, and obtained an optical-fiber 10 Gbps line.

The surprise was that the cost went down from $370,000 to $270,000 a year, and E-rate money covers half its annual cost.

“We increased our bandwidth by 10 times and had a huge cost savings without any construction costs,” says McBreen. The district now plans to add six iPad Minis to each middle school classroom. “We’re now as future-proof as we can be,” he adds.

Hopatcong Borough Schools purchased its online access through a co-op, the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey. It had to spend only an extra $100 a month to more than triple its bandwidth from 300 Mbps to 1 Gbps.

There were no construction costs and the district now pays $3,400 a month, half of which is covered by E-rate payments.

The district’s 1 Gbps data limit provides plenty of leeway. “We typically use about 300 Mbps out of a 1 Gbps limit at any time,” Bisignani says. “The most popular use is online curriculum, but the school’s thirst for data will only grow in the future.”

The data’s in the details

Think of a school’s data like water flowing through a pipe, with each online user siphoning off some of the pressure. Without a wide pipe and adequate supply, the data well will run dry—and there’s no bandwidth left for additional instruction, research or administrative tasks.

“It’s the equivalent of electricity in schools today—not having access to adequate data is the same as a teacher walking into a classroom and the lights not turning on,” says Christine Fox, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and one of the authors of the report “The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning.”

A child completing an online multiple-choice test could take up a few kilobits per second of throughput, while online research might require 1 Mbps.

Data-heavy activities like streaming video, distance learning or a videoconference with a parent or state official can take between 4 and 25 Mbps depending on the resolution of the stream (see data chart below).

How much data is enough? The Federal Communication Commission’s minimum access speed threshold of 100 Kbps per student is clearly a relic of the past. That might cover only email and some rudimentary web work.

“It’s really the starting point for school broadband,” Fox says.

While there are thousands of shades of gray between, three basic levels of school data use exist:

  • Minimal needs. Email and other low-impact online activities are the norm and require 100 Kbps per user.
  • Basic multimedia. Some multimedia curriculum, requiring 1 Mbps per user.
  • High bandwidth. Here, students and teachers use multimedia, online curriculum and videoconferences for a total of 5 to 20 Mbps per user.

It adds up quickly. For instance, a school with 300 students and 20 staff members in the middle bandwidth category might need about 200 Mbps if half to two-thirds of the potential users are online simultaneously.

But if the district has 10 such schools, then 2 Gbps is necessary.

The key to future-proofing the school’s data connection is having extra capacity for new students and high-impact uses. “Keep 50 percent in reserve for peak demand or a new app,” Fox says.

This level can also provide an effective buffer for activities like lunchtime YouTube viewing in the cafeteria, which can overwhelm an unprepared network.

Digital divide narrowing?

Cost concerns are greatly reduced if your school is in one of the 10 locations currently serviced by Google Fiber.

That’s because the company provides free 1 Gbps online connections to schools, libraries and community centers in Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri), Nashville, Provo, Raleigh-Durham, Salt Lake City, and Orange County, California. (View Google Fiber’s expansion plans.)

“It’s a big change for schools,” says Rachel Merlo, community impact manager for Google Fiber in Kansas City. “Free online access can be a real eye-opener.” On the downside, the service is limited to 1 Gbps, but that should be plenty for a school with 200 to 300 students.

Aside from Google Fiber, the digital divide between educational haves and have-nots is narrowing, mostly because of the drop in costs, says SEDTA’s Fox. “The need has never been greater because every career will have an online component and students will need to prepare,” she says.

Also good news is that the FCC provides nearly $4 billion of E-rate money to subsidize equipment and bandwidth costs. But, in recent years, districts requested three times as much money as is available, so it’s important to get E-rate applications in early during each funding cycle. (The next deadline should be early 2018.)


Brian Nadel is a freelance writer in Pelham, New York.