Big Difference in Prices Districts Pay for Web Connectivity, Analysis Finds

Managing Editor

Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

Applications for federal E-rate money show broad gaps between wealthy and poor school systems’ access to high-quality technologies, and varying abilities among districts to purchase connectivity at affordable rates, a new analysis reveals.

The research, released today by Education SuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for improved school connections, is based on data the organization says it collected and analyzed from more than 1,000 school districts in 45 states, which had collectively made $350 million in requests for E-rate funding.

The organization evaluates the status of technology in those districts in part against the goals set out in President Obama’s “ConnectED” initiative, which calls for giving 99 percent of the nation’s students access to high-speed broadband within five years, and providing one gigabit of connectivity to every school. It also uses other standards, such as those put forward by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said Evan Marwell, Education SuperHighway’s CEO.

A synopsis of its findings is available here, and a fuller report is expected to be released later today. [Update: Here’s the full document.]

By the measures of the survey, the country’s schools—particularly its most impoverished ones—have a long way to go. One of the biggest takeaways from the analysis is that schools with higher levels of technology buy at cheaper prices and spend more money on Internet services, Marwell said.

“This is an issue of affordability,” Marwell said, and not just K-12 schools’ basic access to technology. Many districts, even those who in theory could obtain connectivity, often can’t afford it, he said.

Among Education SuperHighway’s findings:

  • School districts that are already meeting the ConnectED goals pay on average only one-third the price for broadband as schools that don’t meet that standard. That could be because they’re buying more broadband, with economies of scale, or because they’re in geographic locations where it’s cheaper, Marwell said. But it also could be driven by other factors, he said, such as they could have greater resources and competition from providers;
  • School districts that already have fiberoptic cable connections have nine times the bandwidth, and 75 percent lower costs, per megabit per second, than districts without fiber;
  • School districts with access to “competitive options” pay two to three times less for wide-area-network connections compared with those served by “incumbent” telephone and cable companies. Ideally, those incumbents should be challenged for school district business by local utilities, muncipal networks, and competitive local exchange carriers, Marwell argues.
  • School districts already meeting the ConnectED goals have budgets for accessing the Internet that are, on average, 450 times larger than those that don’t meet those goals, and they invest $7.16 per student, compared with just $1.59 for schools falling short of the mark;
  • While just 20 percent of all school districts surveyed are meeting the ConnectED goals, the number is lower, 14 percent, among districts with at least three-quarters of students on free or reduced price lunches. By contrast, a much higher portion, 39 percent, of schools with less than 1 percent of free or reduced price lunch students are meeting the ConnectED goals.

In addition, spending in bulk can pay dividends, the report argues. Buying 500 megabits per second of connectivity, which the organization says would put schools on the path to meet the ConnectED goals, is 73 percent less costly than the average connectivity schools are buying today—36 Mpbs. Purchasing at even higher speeds can drive prices even lower, the organization says its research shows.

The analysis comes as the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees the E-rate, has embarked on a process that school and library officials hope will modernize the program and offer greater access to new technologies and Web connections that will help them meet their increasingly complex digital needs.

The E-rate program provides money to schools and libraries for technology improvements. The program’s funding is derived through fees on telecommunications providers, which are passed on to consumers.

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler has announced that the agency will devote an additional $2 billion for high-speed broadband over the next two years, though he has also vowed to comb through the program’s coffers for savings, which he says can be rechanneled toward meeting school technology needs.

Many technology advocates, meanwhile, have called for raising the program’s yearly budget from the currrent $2.4 billion to as much as $5 billion.

Marwell said Education SuperHighway has briefed FCC officials on the findings, and it will submit the results in writing to the agency shortly.

“The FCC has talked about [its review of] E-rate being a data-driven process,” Marwell said. “We took them at their word…We think the conclusions are compelling.”

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