By Ramiro Zuniga, Ed.D.
As I have mentioned in the past, E-rate is a federal program that provides funding opportunities to public schools to help offset the costs of providing Internet access to students and staff. The funding comes either through discounted pricing or actual reimbursements.
E-rate has changed greatly since its inception in 1996. A recent change that has caught my attention is related to connectivity targets. The E-rate program is looking to greatly increase the bandwidth available to each student and staff member. The end result of reaching these targets is that students and staff would have much faster access to the Internet.
The ultimate aim of these targets is to have each school district provide 1 Gbps per every 1,000 students and staff. To put this into perspective, 1 Gbps is about 100 times faster than the average Internet service connection.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it is more complicated than it sounds. As with any improvement, cost is always a factor. There are, however, other considerations that may need to be taken into account.
As I think about this change, a small Texas school district that I am familiar with comes to mind. This district is nowhere near the bandwidth targets. I can imagine what the impact will be.
Currently, this school district has an enrollment of approximately 5,200 students and 700 staff. The bandwidth that this district currently provides for all students and staff is 300 Mbps. Adding both student enrollment and staff equals approximately 6,000 users. Using the new target, the district will need to provide 20 times the amount of bandwidth it is currently offering. This means the school district, which is already paying thousands of dollars, will need to plan and budget for considerable additional cost. This can be difficult for any district. And this only addresses the bandwidth leading to the Internet.
Conversations at the federal level have considered establishing the bandwidth targets within the internal network and not just the connection leading to the Internet. Currently, most campuses across the country maintain network equipment that is not capable of transmitting at speeds beyond 100 Mbps. Significant planning and expense would be involved in upgrading internal networks. Fortunately for school districts, these have only been conversations.
Needless to say, the federal government understands that these bandwidth targets may be difficult for many school districts to reach. The FCC has recently surveyed every district across the country to see if 1,000 Mbps per 1,000 students is even feasible. The intent of the survey is to gain a better understanding of where school districts stand today.
I am happy to see that there is great interest in providing greater access to the internet to our staff and students. Quicker access to information has easily been the most common request across every school district. As with many great things, I understand that it will take great effort in planning and implementing what is needed. I will be happy to see the survey results in the near future. My hunch is that most school districts are not ready to meet these targets.
As I think about the planning and costs involved, I wonder if this initiative will be criticized.
- Is the need for faster access to the Internet legitimate?
- Could the money needed to accomplish these targets be better spent elsewhere?
- Are the bandwidth targets too high?
What do you think? Please feel free to share your thoughts on this initiative.