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Survey: Schools need faster broadband speeds

Fast and reliable broadband access is critical for schools.

More than half of school and library respondents in a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) e-Rate survey say they provide some form of wireless internet access for school employees and students, but almost 80 percent of those same respondents said their broadband connections are inadequate.

Fifty-five percent of those who said their broadband connections are inadequate said that slow connection speed was the deciding factor in that decision.

Ten percent of survey respondents have broadband speeds of 100 Mbps or faster, and more than half (55 percent) have broadband speeds greater than 3 Mbps. More than half of school districts surveyed (60 percent) use a fiber optic connection, and 66 percent of respondents offer wireless internet access for staff, students, or library patrons.

For more stories on broadband in schools, see the following:

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Slightly more than half (56 percent) of survey respondents said they plan to implement or expand their use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years, and 45 percent said they expect to implement or expand handheld devices for educational purposes.

Technology’s more prominent position in schools, coupled with students’ relatively easy access to laptops and other internet-enabled mobile devices, leave students craving instant gratification when it comes to technology and internet speeds in classrooms.

And the survey results are telling—students and teachers need fast, reliable broadband access as part of a 21st-century education.

Plans to boost broadband-enabled handheld devices put schools in a unique position, said John Harrington, CEO of e-Rate compliance services firm Funds For Learning.

“The [e-Rate] is a victim of its own success,” Harrington said. “For years we’ve talked about integrating technology,” and more and more classrooms have interactive whiteboards, stream videos, and let students and teachers instantly pull information from the internet, all of which can weigh on school networks.

“What you multiply that across a school district, the demands on the broadband multiply significantly…people want it, they need it, they’re counting on it, and the demand is blowing up,” he said. “The demand for broadband access is pushing up against the limits of the e-Rate program.”

And as young children today–who are already accustomed to constant and instant technology access—enter school, administrators and technology leaders will have to find solutions to provide access to the technology tools that children and parents want and need, Harrington added.

“It’s going to be crucial for the schools to capitalize on the technology and really meet the expectations of students, parents, and teachers,” Harrington said. “As it stands right now, e-Rate is not going to be enough to cover it. Some of that is going to take schools’ reprioritizing and reshuffling some of these dollars.”

Harrington pointed to survey results indicating that more than half of respondents plan to implement digital textbooks in the near future and said some schools may direct textbook money, freed up in a move to digital textbooks, to augment broadband access.

“It’s not to say that digital text is the answer to everything, [but] we need to maintain basics and find ways to make sure there’s access to these tools and services,” Harrington said.

Funding remains a dominant concern, with 39 percent of respondents reporting that cost of service is a barrier when it comes to meeting internet needs, and 27 percent reported that cost of installation is a barrier.

Also in the survey, school and library respondents ranked the three technology and infrastructure areas in which their institutions could most benefit from improvement over the next two years.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said computers and desktop equipment needed the most immediate improvement, and 42 percent chose server hardware, operating systems, and storage solutions. Professional development and support remains a large need, with 38 percent of respondents saying their staff needs more training and support. Twenty-eight percent said local area network equipment needs updating.

Schools use eMail applications the most, with 98 percent reporting regular use or access, and 69 percent of schools surveyed consider it the most essential tool.

Libraries responding to the survey indicated that online reference materials are the most used application (86 percent) and the most essential (62 percent).

The Obama administration’s efforts to expand broadband access in schools and communities “is dead on,” Harrington said. “We have to push that deeper into our communities. I think you’ll see districts becoming more intelligent and sophisticated in…technology and services that help stretch bandwidth further.”

The report examines the current state of the federal $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program, specifically broadband use among schools and libraries. It was conducted by Harris Interactive from February 2010 to April 2010. The Universal Service Administrative Company, the agency that administers the e-Rate, gave Harris Interactive a list of all 22,819 e-Rate recipients from the 2008 funding year. Harris interactive surveyed 5,000 of those recipients, and received complete surveys from 1,060 recipients.

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Laura Ascione

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