Federal funding only goes so far for internet and infrastructure; here’s how states and communities are helping

internet-school-fundingFor schools across the country, mobile device management and online testing concerns start at the basic level: “How do we get the internet and infrastructure needed?” As it turns out, even the eRate stops short, and schools just can’t find the funding they need. That’s why many districts are turning to their states and local districts for help.

“It’s very important to plan ahead, you can’t stress that enough,” said John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, which provides consulting and support services for the needs of eRate program participants. “Knowing how much broadband you have can be done with multiple speed tests that are available online, but that’s the snapshot of where you are today; it doesn’t answer where you want to be—in terms of internet and infrastructure—in the future.”

Planning ahead can help districts determine how many devices they want to support, the number of students they plan to support over the next few years, and the activities they’d like to have involving online and mobile learning in the future, said Harrington.

“Sometimes if the need isn’t that great, or if a district is already secure in their infrastructure and internet, it’s as simple as a call to the phone company. But if new infrastructure is needed, well, that’s where the real problems begin,” he said.

(Next page: The real school internet problem)

In a headline that could translate to many schools across the country, the Wall Street Journal recently noted that “Slow Internet Vexes Schools.”

According to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that tests school broadband speeds and works to upgrade internet access, an estimated 72 percent of public schools have connections that are too slow for digital learning.

The Obama Administration also revealed that the average school has about the same internet speed as the average American home, while serving 200 times as many users.

“Just as people are getting excited about the power of what the internet offers to students and teachers, they are running into the buzz saw of infrastructure,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway for the Wall Street Journal.

It’s a fact that Harrington emphasized as well, saying that while much of the public thinks that it’s as simple “getting the internet” it has much more to do with in-school (internal) infrastructure.

And according to Harrington, it’s not because schools are bad at planning, it’s because federal funding doesn’t yet support the infrastructure schools need for mobile learning and online assessments as part of the Common Core.

“Think of broadband as a highway,” explained Harrington. “The eRate can get districts the highway. What the eRate can’t get is the on-ramp to the highway—that’s the internal infrastructure. Without the on-ramp, the highway is pretty much useless.”

“It’s like having a having a national information superhighway that runs into a brick wall when it reaches the school building,” said John Windhausen, director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB).

And though this may seem like a massive oversight, the eRate isn’t dumb–it just doesn’t have enough funds.

“Federal funding is prioritized, so Priority 1 means getting that highway to the district and Priority 2 means the on-ramp. Because there are so many schools in need at the moment, there’s no funding left for Priority 2,” Harrington said.

(Next page: State and local help)

Currently, the FCC is trying to improve the eRate by not only increasing funding, but prioritizing and streamlining operations to get needy schools the funds they need. (Read: “3 immediate ways the eRate is improving for schools.”)

“This is not a forever problem, but it is a problem right now because it’s a huge transition schools are making in mobile learning, testing and more,” said Harrington. “The FCC is trying to help secure that federal funding but many states and local communities are also helping.”

Lending helping…infrastructure

To help schools and districts offset their internet and infrastructure funding needs, many local communities have begun offering discounts to schools through local telecommunications providers.

“Many communities are allowing schools to tie into their local fiber optic network,” said Harrington.

Some states even have their own state eRate program, such as in Maine.

“They assess a small extra fee on in-state communications to fund a program to support schools and libraries’ equipment costs,” Windhausen explained.

Another way to address the need for internal internet connections inside the school is for the state to adopt a public-private partnership with industry.

“Let’s face it, the private sector benefits when children use their technology in the school, because they become familiar with the technology and purchase it after they graduate,” noted Windhausen. “States can, and should, corral the private sector companies to make donations of equipment and services now with the expectation it will lead to more technology-savvy workers later in life. This is what President Obama has done with the ConnectED initiative, and once we find out where these donations will be made, states should fill in the gaps with their own state initiatives.”

States such as Oklahoma, North Carolina, Maine, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, and California have also created statewide broadband networks dedicated to serving the needs of schools and other anchor institutions.

Windhausen emphasized that the Federal BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) that came out of the stimulus bill (the ARRA) in 2009 provided seed funding to many of these statewide research and education networks that allowed them to deploy fiber optic networks out to anchor institutions, including schools.

“In some states, 90 percent of schools now have a fiber connection, but in other states only 25 percent of schools have fiber. The FCC is now considering reforms to the e-rate program to bring other states up to speed.”

“States should do more to deploy broadband not just for the [Common Core] but for long-term economic growth and improved quality of life for people and the community,” he continued. “Government at all levels—state, federal and local—should recognize that deploying broadband is an important investment in the future.”

Fiber optic networks can last for decades once they are built, and they can be upgraded at a minimal cost simply by changing the electronics at either end of the fiber, said Windhausen.

“Policy-makers tend to respond to an emergency, so if the Common Core standards are the ‘crisis’ that convinces policy-makers to make smart long-term investment in broadband networks, then so be it.”