Just over three-quarters of schools have met the FCC's current goal of providing at least 100 kilobits per second of Internet access to each student, according to an analysis of E-rate application data from more than 6,500 school districts.
And according to the 2015 State of the States report on school connectivity, released by the non-profit EducationSuperHighway on Nov. 19, there's been a 47 percent increase in the number of schools that brought their broadband speeds up since the last report two years ago.
"The most surprising thing for us has been the pace of progress," said Nell Hurley, communications director for EducationSuperHighway. "Twenty million students connected is really an astounding number, and we're really excited about that."
As more schools encourage computing devices for each student, the network must keep up with rapidly increasing demand. That's why so many schools are moving to fiber networks, with 88 percent of schools that need it actually tapping into fiber. Fiber allows school districts to plan ahead so they can have the capacity to handle more users and devices without slowing the network to a crawl.
In fact, access to fiber, affordability of broadband and insufficient school district budgets pose three major obstacles for school districts -- and districts without fiber access are 15 percent less likely to meet the FCC's current goal, much less prepare for its future goal.
Broadband affordability and budgets can make or break a district's efforts to speed up Internet access for students. School districts that meet the FCC goal pay an average of $5.07 for each megabit per second and set aside an Internet access budget of $4.93 per student each year. In contrast, school districts that don't meet the goal pay more than double that rate and set aside about half of that budget amount for each student annually. That means that many school districts pay more for broadband, but have less to spend on it.
To tackle these challenges, the report suggests three steps:
first, connect 9,500 schools to fiber networks with $1 billion in E-rate discounts; second, make bandwidth more affordable by lowering the average cost of Internet access to $3 for each megabit per second; and third, make sure school districts tap into the $3.9 billion per year in E-rate subsidies for upgrading broadband, along with $3.4 billion of funding for internal connections. A number of states have been taking major steps to provide better broadband access to schools and Wi-Fi in each classroom. North Carolina, for example, started the Wireless Networking initiative that helped nearly every school district install Wi-Fi access points in each classroom. And California budgeted $77 million for Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grants. In all, 38 governors have taken action or spoken about the importance of high-speed broadband in schools.
States that excel at leading broadband initiatives share three common threads that run through their efforts. Most importantly, high-speed broadband access is a priority at the executive level. Coupled with that, a dedicated leader pushes this priority and recruits a team to carry it out. Then these leaders set goals so that school districts and education departments understand where they're headed.
While much progress has been made on high-speed broadband access over the last few years, there's still a lot of work to be done, particularly around bringing fiber networks to schools, which can be a difficult task.
"We need to make sure we're acting now to really get those schools connected in the next one-to-two years," Hurley said.