School broadband access and affordability have come a long way in the last few years, thanks in part to the help of governors and service providers.
In its second annual State of the States report, EducationSuperHighway revealed a 40 percent drop in the amount school districts are paying for Internet service, going from a median cost of $11.73 to $7 for 1 megabit per second. The nonprofit is dedicated to upgrading Internet access in public schools and has helped make pricing more transparent through its Compare & Connect K-12 tool.
The report includes analysis of data representing 10,499 school districts and more than 38 million students from the federal E-rate program that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs. E-rate provides discounts on telecom, Internet and Wi-Fi services for school districts based on the financial needs of the students they serve.
Because of improvements in infrastructure technology including electronics, service providers are giving school districts more bandwidth for their budget, driving costs down. And 34 governors took action in 2016 to help connect classrooms to high-speed broadband so that students could have equal access to education.
"I think the governors' involvement has probably been the single most important thing that's happened over the last year," said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway.
Governors met with service providers to tell them how important it is to provide access to affordable, high-speed broadband, Marwell said. They set connectivity goals and provided technical and procurement assistance.
Seven states also set up matching funds for school districts to build their own fiber networks, which prepare them to handle more traffic in the future. The E-rate modernization in 2014 paved the way for school districts to apply discounts to fiber network projects and receive additional discounts when their states provide 10 percent in matching funding.
California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma have established matching funds for fiber construction, while nine other states will consider legislative proposals to do so this year: Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas and Virginia.
States' willingness to provide matching funds along with E-rate dollars has helped service providers make a business case to build fiber networks out to schools that didn't have them, Marwell said. Small towns and more rural areas in particular have struggled because of their location and oftentimes a lack of competition among service providers.
"We should be proud of where we've come from, and we certainly need to keep at it and make sure that policymakers understand the critical nature of E-rate, and states understand what they can do to leverage that," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school district technology leaders.
Access to high-speed Internet has been a priority for the FCC and many school district leaders. Since 2013, EducationSuperHighway has helped schools find out how fast their Internet access is through a school speed test. Back then, just 30 percent of school districts reached the FCC's minimum goal of 100 kilobits per second for each student. That number climbed to 88 percent last year thanks to more affordable broadband, state leadership and the E-rate reform.
Similarly, Wi-Fi access in classrooms has improved dramatically over the last three years. In 2013, three-quarters of schools said they didn't have enough Wi-Fi compared to just 17 percent last year. This drop comes in part from a $150 per student budget for internal connections that the E-rate program now provides.
"We've actually made unbelievable progress in getting schools wired for their classrooms," Marwell said.