- In its 2019 State of the States report, EducationSuperHighway declares mission accomplished on closing the connectivity gap, with 99% of the nation's schools now having affordable and reliable broadband connections at a minimum speed of 100 kbps and with a "clear path" to scaling bandwidth for future needs.
- The non-profit advocacy organization says just 743 schools remain to be connected to the infrastructure needed for digital learning, and that most have an attainable pathway there via the Federal Communications Commission's E-rate program and 23 state matching funds.
- Additionally, it notes that 90% of districts have invested close to $5 billion in new school Wi-Fi networks since E-rate modernization in 2015 expanded support for wireless funding, recommending that the FCC renew and make permanent that support.
Despite the "mission accomplished" declaration, administrators and policymakers shouldn't view this victory as definitive. In an introductory letter to this year's report, EducationSuperHighway Founder and CEO Evan Marwell states "this is just the beginning."
"Eighty-five percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders support the increased use of digital learning in their schools," Marwell writes. "This means that state leaders and school districts will need to continue to upgrade classroom internet access so that bandwidth is never a bottleneck to learning."
Perhaps nowhere have reliable broadband access and adequate bandwidth become more important than in states where annual high-stakes standardized tests have migrated online. While a number of glitches in these transitions have been laid at the feet of testing vendors, plenty have also resulted from schools lacking the adequate networking infrastructure and bandwidth to support a building full of students accessing exams at the same time.
Regarding ideal connection speeds for schools, The Brookings Institution notes, "Some activities like online assessments require only 64 kbps per student. Other activities involving streaming online video take over 1,000 kbps per student." But the FCC recommends a minimum 100 kbps per student goal, with an ideal 1 mbps (or 1,000 kbps) per student in every classroom to support daily digital learning, according to the EducationSuperHighway report.
As more schools become connected to reliable, high-speed broadband, some have speculated how E-rate funding might be further expanded to support the strength and security of these connections. With K-12 a particularly lucrative target for cyberattacks, for example, it's plausible that the program could help cover solutions on that front.
Additionally, broadband access continues to be a struggle for remote rural schools, particularly when gaps exist in local service providers' coverage areas. While some have opted to install their own fiber networks to address this, it has proven to be a matter of contention in the E-rate bidding process, as demonstrated by a dispute between regional education service centers in Texas and local service providers earlier this year.