Why It’s So Hard to Get Schools Online in the Digital Age

In recent months there’s been a lot of news about public, private and philanthropic commitments to getting our public schools access to broadband Internet. In February, coming off a State of the Union address by President Obama that highlighted the issue, the FCC announced that it would move money around to double the sum available for so-called E-Rate broadband grants, from $1 to $2 billion. According to the advocacy group Education Superhighway, an astonishing 72% of K-12 schools nationwide lack sufficient speeds for the kinds of applications that you and I probably take for granted in our homes.

How can this be? The problems with school Internet access are basic and often come in the last mile, or even the last few inches. I recently spoke to Matt Tullman of digedu, a small Chicago-based startup, who offered me a closeup view of the problems.

Digedu actually started as a learning software company, offering lesson creation tools. They expanded into providing hardware, helping a school choose the right device and offering the service maintenance and training. It became clear that many schools didn’t have the bandwidth to use the products they were offering.

So they created a classroom “bandwidth augmentation” solution called Classroom Cloud. It’s a box that sits on a desk, makes local backups of content, and augments bandwidth, enabling 60 or 70 students to stream video simultaneously.

I asked how much his solution can improve performance for his client schools. ”It’s not so much a difference in performance as operable vs. not,” he says. “Most schools share amongst the entire school what a household would have.”

Think about that: a connection that’s supposed to be used by 4 or 5 people, instead being shared by possibly hundreds of students.

Upgrading access, he says, is a heavy infrastructure undertaking, often bound up with other costs.

“In the Southside of Chicago, where our schools are located, it’s copper wires.  They have no other choice. It’s not about paying for a bigger plan. I sat down with a principal who told me, even if you use E-rate it’s still $200,000 to lay a pipe of fiber optics. That’s prohibitive, especially when access is not the end in itself–the outcome is technology.” In other words, laying the pipe is a necessary, not a sufficient condition to having a 21st century school.

Figuring out what exactly is slowing down a school’s connection takes some detective work–Tullman says he’s often “sweating in his suit” at un-air conditioned Chicago schools.

“There are so many points at which bandwidth can be throttled at most schools,” Tullman says. “The access point could be outside these buildings with four-foot concrete walls. It could be several years old. The wiring could be old. 

The E-Rate program has been criticized for mismanagement of resources. In each of the past several years, between half a billion and a billion dollars’ worth of E-Rate funds have gone unused. Outdated procurement processes also stand in the way of school districts using these funds effectively. According to Education Superhighway, average schools are paying around $25 per megawatt of bandwidth, while best-practice districts have been able to negotiate prices as low as $2 per bandwidth. They recommend school districts banding together into regional consortia to increase their bargaining power. Maybe the structure of the federal grant program needs to change to enable the kind of construction work that actually needs to be done to get schools wired.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz writes the Digital/Edu blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010).