Arizona Plays Catch-Up with High-Speed Internet in Schools

While Arizona has fallen behind in Internet access, schools are working on a plan to speed it up.

by Yoohyun Jung, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson / March 27, 2017 0
Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Twenty years ago, internet access was a luxury that only a small number of schools in the country could afford. That’s no longer true today.

As more instructional technology advances and more material lives online instead of in book shelves or cabinets, nearly all schools in the country have adopted some sort of access to the internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

However, data from a nonprofit advocating for better internet access in schools shows Arizona is still lagging. That’s not to say progress isn’t being made; a statewide initiative coupled with federal funding could boost internet connectivity in Arizona’s public and charter schools substantially in coming years.

Education Superhighway ranked Arizona 44th worst out of 50 states for connectivity in 2016. Fifty-five districts and charter schools in the state, including five in Pima County, don’t meet the minimum connectivity goal or need more sufficient wireless access.

Internet enables instruction experiences beyond traditional methods, educators say.

Students in rural areas can gain access to accelerated or specialized courses through the internet. Classes can take virtual field trips to national parks or even world-renowned museums. Teachers can track student progress in real time and use the data to give individualized attention to struggling kids.

“There is almost a universal agreement that technology is a critical enabler of teaching and learning in our schools,” said Evan Marwell, the CEO of Education Superhighway, the nonprofit using government data to understand internet access issues in schools and helps them with procurement.

But those opportunities may not be there yet for some 250,000 students in the state, many of whom are in rural areas, whose schools do not meet the FCC’s minimum connectivity goal. It’s not a mandate, but 100 Kbps, or kilobits per second, per student is what the FCC, State Educational Technology Directors Association and Education Superhighway agree as being the minimum bandwidth, or capacity of internet access, to facilitate instructional technology.

Tucson Unified School District, which is the largest district in the county, has double the amount of the minimum goal.

Some districts make do with less, he said. But given the minimum goal was adopted by the FCC in 2014 and technology advances rapidly, the goal would be harder to achieve in coming years, not easier.

To put things into perspective, Marwell says his household of five has a 100 Mbps, or megabits per second, connection. That’s a thousand times more than 100 Kbps.

But that 100 Mbps is the maximum capacity, not what’s being delivered regularly by the service provider, he said. On average, internet customers can expect to get about half the advertised speed.That boils down to about 10 Mbps per person in Marwell’s family, he said. To stream a high-definition video, it takes about 5 Mbps.

“You can imagine, if you’re in a school in rural Arizona that has 100 kids and you only have 10 Mbps of bandwidth, only one, maybe two classrooms can stream a video possibly,” he said.

A TALE OF TWO DISTRICTS

About 135 miles west of Tucson in Ajo, Superintendent Bob Dooley has a lot of pride in his district, which serves 435 students, and the instructional technology it provides.

“For a small district, we’re in pretty decent shape,” he said. The district received a hefty grant four years ago to update its technology. It now has smart whiteboards in every classroom, computer labs and accelerated or specialized courses students can take online.

“We still have textbooks and calculators, but technology is definitely an asset,” he said. “We would not be serving our students if we didn’t expose them to technology.”

It worries him that his kids aren’t getting the same access as those in Phoenix or Tucson though. Larger schools generally tend to have more resources, he said.

Ajo Unified has the same bandwidth of 100 Mbps, which is the same amount that Marwell of Education Superhighway has for his family. The network is shared by staff members too, who use it for important functions like payroll and financial accounts.

Dooley said he’s very satisfied with the service he’s getting from the local internet service provider, Table Top Telephone Co., though he hasn’t got another choice. It is the only provider in the town of about 3,300 people.

When it’s time for assessments, “it’s kind of like a perfect storm analogy,” Dooley said. Two or three classes taking an assessment online at the same time as some kids taking online courses can create delay issues.

To avoid that, the Ajo district plans to triple its bandwidth through a federal funding program called E-Rate, which makes $3.9 billion available to public schools and libraries seeking to improve internet access. It also wants to expand technology use.

“We always want to look down the road 25 years,” Dooley said.

Across the county, Scott Little, chief financial officer of Amphitheater schools in the Tucson area who also oversees technology, monitors the district’s internet usage from his desk. He pulls up a dashboard, which can tell him what sites are using more of the bandwidth and when the peak times are.

As of 2016, the district didn’t meet the 100 Kbps per student goal. But Little said he thinks the goal is arbitrary. “It’s more of a wish list and less of a mandate,” he said. At 28 Kbps per student, Amphi makes do by restricting access to things like streaming radio or social media. He can even customize what’s restricted to whom.

“In my opinion, bandwidth is a bit like jails and roads,” he said. “You build them, and people will find a way to use them to capacity.”

Because the capital funding source from the state has dried up, the district is planning on having students bringing in their own devices like tablets and laptops, which would add about 14,000 new connections to the internet, Little said.

To support that and future growth, Amphi is getting a new internet connection and an infrastructure upgrade that would increase the district’s bandwidth to 2 Gbps, which is five times more than the existing bandwidth.

Amphi is one of the first school districts in the country to use the E-Rate program to fund something called “dark fiber.” Fiber optic cables are threads that transmit data. Dark fiber, by extension, is unused fiber optics that can be “turned on” for more capacity.

So what Amphi is doing is building a system with extra capacity than it immediately plans to use to account for growth, Little said. That means if the need for internet capacity grows in coming years, whether it’s because of enrollment increase or technology advancement, the district can tap into the extra capacity already built into the system.

It’s all about being cost-effective, Little said. The district would save about $575,000 in 10 years by having the unused fiber optics already in place.

CHANGING TIDE

Arizona is in the bottom tier now, but there are measures in place to change the tide, said Stefan Swiat, an Arizona Department of Education spokesman. The state launched an initiative to expand broadband access in schools, especially in rural areas.

“Urban Arizona keeps progressing and keeps getting access to better technology,” he said. “Rural Arizona keeps falling behind. What this does is level the playing field.”

Through a grant program from the K-12 Broadband and Digital Learning Policy Academy, the state education department would receive $10 from the grant for every dollar the state invests. To enable state investment, the Arizona Corporation Commission recently approved a one-time expansion of the Arizona Universal Service Fund to distribute $8 million.

The initiative would help schools build appropriate infrastructure and help guide them through the procurement process, including helping them make the most of E-Rate. It could benefit 100,000 students in the next two years and level the playing field for rural schools that face challenges in getting high-speed internet.

“It’s a game changer,” Swiat said. “This is a once-in-a-generation type of opportunity for Arizona.”

©2017 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.