Extra Broadband for Underserved Schools

Extra broadband for underserved schools may be on its way.  The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition – an internet access advocacy group – recently released its new “Broadband Action Plan”  .

The plan is made up of 10 research papers that detail strategies for ensuring that anchor institutions – schools, libraries, healthcare providers, community colleges, public media, public housing, and other community organizations – have access to gigabit internet speeds. These anchor institutions are central to ensuring that broadband for underserved is available.

While a lot of attention is paid to residential or commercial access to high-speed broadband, connecting anchor institution is a cost-effective way to ensure that every community and every individual has high-speed access to the Internet. The action plan is part of the coalition’s broader “Grow2Gig+” initiative, a push to connect all anchor institutions to gigabit speeds by 2020.

A recent report from the Education Commission of the States indicates that many households and individuals across the states lack adequate access to industry-standard broadband speeds. In many of these cases, ECS notes that, regardless of desire or availability of financial resources, it is impossible to access broadband at industry standard speeds because the information superhighway has not been constructed. “Where you live matters and geography affects educational equity and opportunity.”

A 2015 report from the White House on community-based broadband solutions indicated that nearly 40% of American households either could not purchase a fixed 10 megabits per second (Mbps) connection, or had to buy it from a single provider.

In 2015, the FCC redefined broadband as connections with 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 10% of Americans lack access to broadband by this definition. But once again, where you live matters. Rural areas have significantly slower internet access, with 39% lacking access to broadband of 25/4 Mbps, compared to only 4% for urban areas. Additionally, approximately 41% of schools, representing 47% of the nation’s students, lack the connectivity to meet the Commission’s short-term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff.

The entry costs of providing improved broadband for underserved areas with low population densities are very high. Recognizing this, the FCC has worked to mitigate initial costs. Through its Connect America Fund, the FCC subsidizes some of the initial costs of ISPs entering rural markets.

A number of federal agencies have programs that support rural broadband initiatives, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban development and Labor. The Department of Agriculture just announced $24 million in funding for 45 projects designed to connect rural communities in 32 states with educational experts or medical professionals via videoconferencing.

It’s this diversity of funding sources and eligible services that make me think that the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition has a point.  They have identified three themes common to much of the Action Plans research papers: the value of collaboration, the importance of competitive connectivity options and the need for funding to make broadband projects happen. This broad-based organization of anchor institutions, commercial companies and non-profit broadband providers, foundations, public interest groups, and others can advocate for policies and practices at the local level that help to bridge the gaps between disparate funding sources and their associated regulations, in order to leverage the overall investment to best serve each community’s needs. The anchor institutions in particular can also help the most underserved community members learn how to take advantage of the power of high-speed broadband.

It’s not always a matter of “If you build it, they will come,” as the telcos have learned as they seek to expand participation in their internet adoption programs for low-income families. Anchor institutions can dedicate personnel to train people about broadband services and technologies, thereby stimulating broadband usage and demand. Collaboration across all sectors of the community will be key in ensuring that broadband access is available to the entire community and is used to stimulate economic growth, expand educational opportunities and promote digital equity.

Anne Wujcik

This column was written by Ann Wujcik, editor of EdNet Insight. A version of this article originally appeared in EdNet News Alerts, a property of School Leaders Now’s parent company, MDR.