Tech Access Is a Huge Need, But Students’ At-Home Connectivity Is Falling Short

Contributing Writer
Lack of at-home internet access a big concern, EdWeek Market Brief

Districts across the country have beefed up their Internet infrastructure on campus, as the pandemic forced school systems to shift quickly to a 1-to-1 device environment. 

But student and teacher access to broadband away from school campuses still remains a major hurdle in the K-12 connectivity landscape.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new survey from Funds For Learning, an organization that consults with districts on the E-rate program, a multibillion federal effort that supports internet connectivity for schools and libraries, but does not support off-campus activity. The report highlights the ongoing inequities in access to high-speed Internet outside of school, at a time when many students’ opportunities to learn are dependent on their ability to connect with ed-tech tools and mobile devices.

The federal E-rate program has long been a key vehicle for delivering on-campus connectivity to schools and libraries. More than 21,00 school districts, individual schools, libraries and states and 3,700 vendors currently participate in the program. 

And district officials using the E-rate program also believe it could serve another purpose: To help offset the costs of providing broadband to the homes of students and teachers, according to the Funds For Learning survey.

The data from the report includes survey responses from June from nearly 2,100 applicants to the federal subsidy program.

According to the report, 74 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that insufficient Internet access to the home of students and library patrons is a significant issue in their community. Only 9 percent of respondents said they disagree or strongly disagree.

Nearly three-fourths of respondents — 72 percent — said they agree or strongly agree that the E-rate program offers the most practical solution for schools and libraries to access money to improve off-campus connectivity for students and teachers. 

And 80 percent of respondents said if the FCC allowed their districts or libraries to share Internet access off campus, at no additional cost to the E-rate program, they would do so.

Brian Stephens, the director of stakeholder engagement at Funds For Learning, said while COVID-19 spurred districts to invest more in ed tech and in their on-campus networks, at-home connectivity largely remains a conundrum. 

“It’s still a lingering issue out there,” he said. “A lot of families were able to find ways to get connected or find better-quality connections during remote learning, but that said, it’s rare we come across a district that has this problem completely solved.” 

In March 2021, Congress approved roughly $7.2 billion as part of a COVID stimulus package to pay for devices and internet connectivity tools used off campus. 

That money — known as the Emergency Connectivity Fund — was distributed to districts for laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers to connect students and staff at home or wherever learning is taking place away from school buildings.

But it was a one-time fund. And now districts will need to find money moving forward if they plan to continue subsidizing student and teacher connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots currently being paid for by the ECF, Stephens said. 

Cyberthreats Cast a Shadow

The survey also gauged reactions to another serious issue facing school systems: network security. 

District and library officials using the E-rate program want the FCC to act quickly to help schools shoulder the rising costs of defending their networks from cybersecurity attacks. 

Roughly nine out of ten respondents — 93 percent — said the E-rate program should provide funding for network security and network management tools. 

Currently, districts are paying out of pocket to maintain or upgrade most advanced network security tools because E-rate won’t cover them. The E-rate program reimburses districts for firewalls, but only older and basic technology is currently eligible, essentially negating next-generation firewalls.

Ninety-one percent of respondents said next-generation firewalls should qualify for E-rate support. Meanwhile, 88 percent said that intrusion detection/protection tools should qualify for E-rate funding, and 87 percent said content malware/filtering and DNS security should qualify. 

A majority of respondents also highlighted endpoint security tools, cybersecurity education and training and multi-factor authentication as other services that should qualify for the federal subsidy program.

In July, the FCC announced a $200 million, three-year pilot program to strengthen cyberdefense in K-12. The agency has yet to release a notice of proposed rulemaking for the initiative, so it’s not clear what products or services could be covered under the pilot. 

This much is clear: The cybersecurity pilot is set to be funded and to take place outside of the E-rate program. 

Education groups have for years pushed the FCC to expand E-rate eligibility to cover cyber protections. 

Stephens said his organization still believes that the E-rate program is best suited to handle cybersecurity funding because “it already has an established system of checks and balances and existing application process” that districts are familiar with. 

But he said the FCC has been hesitant to expand E-rate eligibility for advanced cybersecurity tools because in the agency’s view it could detract from the federal subsidy’s primary mission of connectivity.

What the FCC decides to fund as part of its pilot program could likely end up determining whether E-rate eligibility is expanded to cover advanced cybersecurity tools in the future, Stephens said.  

“If they decide to do next-generation firewalls and some additional network security products, then E-rate is the logical place,” for a permanent program, he said. “If they plan to fund more and go beyond data networks, then maybe it makes more sense as a separate program.” 

He added: “Schools are just ready to see the FCC take some action.”

Image by Getty.

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