Despite significant gains in high-speed connectivity among schools in the last decade, most schools’ broadband access is still not sufficient to accommodate current and future technology needs, according to a report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

High-speed internet access is vital for U.S. education and global competitiveness, and ensuring broadband access for all students has become a critical national issue, SETDA says in its report, titled "High-Speed Broadband Access for All Kids: Breaking Through the Barriers."

Schools need high-speed broadband access to create rigorous, technology-infused learning environments, and students need affordable, high-speed broadband access at home to extend learning opportunities outside the classroom, the reports says. Yet, the connection speeds of schools and homes aren’t keeping pace with demands.

Although national statistics boast of 98-percent connectivity among U.S. schools, internet access for many of these schools is often limited and occurs at low speeds. For instance, the report says, "a school is considered ‘connected’ when it only has one computer dedicated to administrators’ use for eMail purposes."

Speed is important, the report says, "because it determines what applications and functionality [are] possible through the internet connection. …[Insufficient bandwidth] cannot accommodate many technology applications that have been found to save money and improve teacher effectiveness, such as high-definition video conferencing and online learning. The constraints that inadequate broadband connections pose are vast when considering the trend toward online high-stakes testing, database management, school web presence and communication with parents, collaborative research projects, and video streaming."

In fact, the report says, between 2003 and 2008 "the average size of a web page has grown 233 percent, and the number of objects on the average web page has doubled."

"Planning and implementing for this growth is critical for our education system," said Mary Ann Wolf, SETDA’s executive director. "We now have data that show how technology makes a significant impact on student achievement in all subject areas and grade levels. … High-speed broadband [access] is essential to making change happen."

To provide a technology-rich learning environment for the next 2-3 years, SETDA recommends an external connection to the internet service provider of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) for every 1,000 students and staff members, and internal wide-area network connections between schools of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff members.

Over the next 5-7 years, the group recommends an external internet connection of 100 Mpbs for every 1,000 students and staff members and internal wide-area network connections of at least 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) per 1,000 students and staff members.

High-speed broadband access is similar to a utility, the report says–it’s essential for operations. That’s why states and school districts should leverage E-rate discounts and other federal, state, and local funding resources to pay for this access, the report urges–and districts should partner with others in their state or community, as well as negotiate on-demand fee structures with broadband providers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently updated its definition of "basic broadband" from 200 kilobits per second (Kbps) in one direction to between 768 Kpbs and 1.5 Mbps. But even this definition falls short, SETDA says.

"Broadband speed at this definition is still much too slow to facilitate a robust, interactive learning environment necessary to improve student achievement and create tomorrow’s innovators," the report states.

SETDA and industry leaders maintain that the definition of broadband needs to be increased significantly over the next few years, and that the definition of high-speed broadband should be at least 10 Mbps by 2010. Others in the industry support the creation of big broadband networks of at least 100 Mbps–and some countries already have established connectivity goals of 100 Mbps.

Schools’ broadband speeds are falling behind even the speeds of average households, the report warns. SETDA has observed that most schools use a T1 connection to the internet, providing speeds of up to 1.54 Mbps–whereas cable operators are providing broadband service at 5 Mbps to many U.S. households, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

"Simply having connectivity is not enough: Without measurable upgrades in bandwidth to allow for greater speeds–or even to maintain current speeds as demand grows–teachers and students will be severely limited in the technology applications they can utilize," the report says.

The report cites examples of districts that have leveraged the E-rate and creative partnerships to build robust broadband networks, such as the Charles County Public Schools in Maryland, the Orange County Public Schools in Florida, and California’s Lemon Grove School District.

SETDA recommends that districts undertake a coordinated planning effort with state and local governments, community organizations, and/or the private sector; develop a long-term technology plan that specifically addresses their high-speed broadband requirements; and obtain stakeholder commitment to realizing these goals.

Greater broadband access also is on the minds of other leading ed-tech advocacy groups.

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The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently launched a new Broadband Knowledge Center, an online repository developed to help educators better understand their bandwidth needs, as well as the potential that broadband brings to the classroom.

The resource includes a number of articles and reports, including a survey conducted by The Greaves Group and The Hayes Connection of several hundred school district chief technology officers regarding their projected bandwidth needs over the next five years.

That report, "America’s Digital Schools," identified a "bandwidth crisis" and highlighted the need for schools to plan ahead and budget wisely for their needs to prevent slow bandwidth in the future. (See "Researchers identify key ed-tech trends.")

"The topic of a bandwidth crisis is difficult to discuss, because we have had some progress; we have heard dire predictions before that have not come true, the technical aspects are not transparent and can be difficult to articulate, and there are competing points of view and interest," said Christopher Brown, senior vice president of research at Pearson Education and co-chair of CoSN’s Broadband Task Force.

"Still, we seem finally to be in a position to realize the promise of technological convergence, and yet we are observing bandwidth bottlenecks at many schools that are frankly inhibiting the possibilities for our students."

"It is critical that we begin addressing the crisis now, as it only has the potential to worsen in the future," said Jeanne Hayes, president of The Hayes Connection and co-chair of CoSN’s Broadband Task Force. "There is a real opportunity here to bring attention to this important infrastructure issue facing our schools and to uncover solutions that can be put into action. Bandwidth is an essential component of 21st-century teaching and learning, and we must find ways to build momentum, not slow it down."

Links:

"High-Speed Broadband Access for All Kids: Breaking through the Barriers"

CoSN’s Broadband Knowledge Center