(Tribune News Service) -- The number of students without adequate Internet connections in school has been cut in half over the past two years, according to a new analysis by the broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.
During the same period, the rate most districts pay for bandwidth has also declined by 50 percent, the group found.
Despite that substantial progress, however, more than 21 million students still go without adequate Internet access in the classroom, according to the report. Roughly 9,500 public schools in the United States—many of them rural—also still need access to fiber-optic cables or other modern technologies that will allow them to meet schools' ever-growing demand for more bandwidth.
"People are focused on this issue now, and they know there is an opportunity to finish the job," said Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway's CEO. "But affordability is really the number-one challenge."
The analysis is based on a review of recent applications to the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for schools and libraries. EducationSuperHighway analyzed the 2015 applications of 6,781 school districts serving 25 million students in 49,000 schools across all 50 states.
The new findings offer the first comprehensive look at the impact of the Federal Communications Commission's recent moves to establish national targets for school connectivity and to overhaul the E-rate program. The program applications that are the basis of EducationSuperHighway's analysis are the first since the commission formally established national school-connectivity targets and made hundreds of millions of new dollars available to support school broadband purchases.
"It's working," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who led the push to modernize the E-rate, told Education Week in an interview. "We've had an awful lot of major policy issues that we've decided in the last couple of years, but I think the one I'm most proud of is the decision we made to reform and expand the E-rate program."
In addition to its research efforts, EducationSuperHighway is also leading a national advocacy and technical-support effort. Governors in more than three dozen states have signed on, according to the new report.
Among the group's major supporters are Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple announced last month a $20 million gift to EducationSuperHighway.
In 2014, the FCC formally recommended that all schools provide at least 100 kilobits per second of bandwidth to each student and staff member. The commission described that threshold as the minimum necessary to support digital learning in schools.
A year earlier, EducationSuperHighway had found that 40 million students lacked access to that level of broadband in school.
Now that number has been cut by roughly half, the group reports. More than 75 percent of school districts currently meet that minimum target, compared with just 30 percent in 2013. Significantly, previous gaps in basic-connectivity levels between affluent and economically disadvantaged schools and between urban/suburban and rural schools also appear to have been largely eliminated.
"I have to admit, I was surprised," Marwell said in an interview. "There's been a ton of progress."
The median cost of Internet access for schools, meanwhile, has dropped from $22 for each megabit per second in 2013 to $11 now, EducationSuperHighway found.
The reason, the group's report concludes, is because Internet service providers are now giving school ditricts a lot more bandwidth for only a little bit more money.
That dynamic is important for two reasons.
One is the breakneck growth in schools' demand for bandwidth, which is rising at a rate of roughly 50 percent each year, according to EducationSuperHighway's analysis. That appetite has been fueled in large part by the massive influx of digital devices into schools, as well as the shift to online state testing.
The other reason is that current minimum-bandwidth targets are only temporary. The FCC and President Barack Obama alike have established a more ambitious long-term target of 1 megabit per second, per student.
Just 9 percent of districts are currently meeting that target, EducationSuperHighway found.
The new analysis comes almost one year after the FCC overhauled the E-rate, raising the program's annual spending cap from $2.4 to $3.9 billion and approving a host of regulatory changes to encourage fiber build-outs and increase competition among telecommunications companies.
The impact of those moves is now being felt in schools across the country: Total E-rate subsidies for Internet access rose from $470 million in 2013, before the reforms were passed, to nearly $680 million in 2015, according to EducationSuperHighway.
Other groups are also examining the impact of the E-rate overhaul. Earlier this month, for example, the Consortium for School Networking released results from a survey of more than 500 district leaders and school technology officials. That report also found signs of significant progress in school connectivity—as well as ongoing challenges related to affordability.
"While we are headed in the right direction, our mission is not accomplished," said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger in reaction to the EducationSuperHighway findings. "Education leaders and policymakers need to keep focused on building robust and affordable networks that enable digital learning."
Among the ongoing challenges: rural schools, which continue to find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to pricing and access to optimal technologies. While rural schools are now on par with their urban and suburban counterparts when it comes to meeting minimum bandwidth-per-student targets, roughly 1 in 5 rural schools lack access to fiber-optic cables, compared with 10 percent of suburban schools and 5 percent of urban schools, according to EducationSuperHighway.
Rural schools also pay about two and a half times as much for bandwidth as other schools.
"The challenge for rural America is the future," Marwell said. "If we don't get affordable fiber out to those communities, they're going to get left behind."
To "finish the job" of providing minimally adequate connectivity to all students and moving the country closer to the FCC's long-term goals, roughly 9,500 schools will need fiber-optic or equivalent connections, the EducationSuperHighway report concludes.
Time is of the essence, Marwell said. The FCC has temporarily removed its cap on the amount of E-rate funds that can be used to pay for new fiber build-outs. Districts have three more years under the new uncapped window.
In order to meet the commission's long-term 1 Mbps/student connectivity target, the price of school bandwidth will also need to keep falling, to about $3/Mbps, EducationSuperHighway suggested.
Strategies that could help in the coming years include increased bulk and consortium purchasing by schools and states, as well as efforts to provide new options to districts long faced with little choice in the broadband market. As districts reach new contract agreements with Internet service providers who have already recouped the costs of building their fiber networks, the cost of bandwidth should also come down, EducationSuperHighway suggests.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association declined to comment on the new affordability targets.
One potential hurdle: In order to maximize the impact of such changes, many school districts will need to become more sophisticated in their understanding of the broadband marketplace, Marwell said.
Thirty-eight governors, including those in Montana and New Mexico, have formally pledged to make affordable high-speed broadband for all schools a priority in their administrations. Strategies might include setting statewide connectivity goals, appointing a leader for state efforts, and funding or otherwise supporting new fiber build-outs.
"Most of the new money is coming from the E-rate program," Marwell said. "The real role of governors is providing leadership and expertise and nudging and pushing and bringing people along for the effort."
©2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.