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Chasing the Broadband Dream: The Ongoing Struggle

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission expanded the federal E-rate program to help schools provide students with access to high-speed internet.

One of the main goals as part of that expansion was to help states get broadband internet to rural schools and those that need it most.

Depending on who you talk to, those efforts are starting to pay off. Education Week reports that Wyoming, one of the most rural states in the nation, is just the second state to achieve 100-percent high-speed connectivity across all its schools.

A glass is half-full person might say, “Well, if Wyoming did it…”

On the other hand, it’s a little disheartening that just two states have achieved total broadband access.

Indeed there is plenty of work still to do, especially if you believe a new report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

The report, The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, is a  sequel of sorts to two previous reports—one from earlier this year and another from 2012. It rightly acknowledges the strides that have been made to close the broadband gap in schools, while calling for expansion of high-speed internet both inside and outside of school.

In the report, SETDA makes four recommendations:

Increase infrastructure to support Student-Centered Learning
The report makes specific recommendations, including for service provider speeds and network sizes. But the most important piece might be SETDA’s call for schools to look ahead.

“SETDA discourages schools and districts from developing broadband expansion plans simply based on current usage,” according to the report. “Usage data may be skewed to limited digital learning experiences for students or teachers and/or minimal usage of advanced tools and resources for school administration.”

In other words, schools should think about the future of education technology and plan accordingly. Any plan to develop or to expand broadband access should first consider what’s best for students and the different ways they learn.

Design infrastructure to meet capacity targets
In many cases, schools need to rethink why and how their networks are being used in the first place.

There was a time several years ago when broadband networks were largely reserved for processing heavy backend administrative functions, such as grading or attendance systems. These days, the lion’s share of broadband demand comes from the classroom and in other places built to support student learning.

“As districts and schools move to seamless digital learning environments,” the report’s authors write, “the importance of designing high-capacity and widely available networks, including the utilization of wireless networks is essential.”

Leverage state resources to increase broadband access
According to SETDA, at least a third of U.S. states don’t provide direct funding to help schools improve broadband access.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SETDA recommends that states exhaust all available resources, be it direct funding, state-level and federal programs, or other means to support district-level broadband expansion.

Ensure equity of access for all students outside of school
Even when schools do everything they can to ensure students have access to high-speed internet in the classroom, far too many students still encounter substandard access at home.

This “homework gap” will only continue to widen as schools migrate to digital curricula and devices, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the attendees at the International Society for Technology in Education conference last year.

While schools can’t provide internet directly to homes, forward thinking educators can help parents identify creative solutions to ensure students and families get the broadband access they need.

SETDA suggests three ways for states, districts, and schools to promote the extension of broadband access outside school:

  • Provide outreach and education for families—particularly low-income families—on the importance of high-speed internet access.
  • Work with community organizations to provide more robust connections.
  • Make sure that community members and families know and understand every option for acquiring affordable high-speed access at home.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure its students have equitable access to high-speed internet? Tell us in the comments.

Are you planning a digital expansion in your district this year? It’s a good idea to see where your community stands on the idea. Here’s a few ways to start that conversation right now.