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Smart education networks: An action plan for leaders

A number of things should be considered when it comes to preparing school networks for optimum performance

school-networkIn my September column, “Time to ask for more eRate funding,” I discussed how this is a historic moment. The eRate program is the largest and most important funding source for ed-tech infrastructure. For the first time in 17 years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a comprehensive rulemaking to examine the eRate’s structure, the services it supports, and the adequacy of its funding.

To help inform the FCC and our community, CoSN and Market Data Retrieval (MDR) in August and September surveyed school district leaders about their broadband networks, garnering 469 responses.

[Editor’s note: You can read the key findings in our eRate Survival Guide.]

Here’s what the survey tells us.

We need more bandwidth—now

Despite the eRate’s success in promoting nearly universal basic internet access, 99 percent of districts agree they need more bandwidth now or will in the next 36 months.

(Next page: What else do school networks need?)

The State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recommends 100 Mbps of internet access per 1,000 students today and 1 Gbps per 1,000 students by 2020. According to our survey, 43 percent of school districts indicated than none of their schools can meet the current goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students. Only one in four districts believe that 100 percent of their schools meet this goal.

It’s more than fast pipes to the door

We need to focus on not only getting “fat” broadband pipes to the door of the district and school—we must focus on how the network connects to the classroom and devices.

Unfortunately, there are major problems with the average school internal connections and wiring, the local area network (LAN) backbone, and wireless access points. These combined weaknesses mean that school networks currently cannot support a robust digital learning environment:

  • 57 percent of districts do not believe their school’s wireless networks have the capacity to handle a one-to-one deployment today.
  • One-half of the wiring in school buildings uses, in part, older and slower wiring (Cat-5 and Cat-3) that will not carry data at broadband speeds.
  • LANs in 26 percent of districts are using slower copper or 2.3 percent wireless backbones. Neither makes sense for LAN infrastructure.

Location matters

As your realtor says, three things matter: “location, location, location.” Where your school is located has a huge impact on getting to a robust education network with broadband connectivity. In fact, 20 percent of districts identified geography as a barrier to increasing connectivity in their schools, and more than one in 10 indicated that their internet providers were either at capacity or could not expand capacity. This market failure is a key reason that policy makers need to support broadband policies that ensure every classroom and every child has access to digital learning. It is also why eRate funding must be doubled.

Rural schools pay six times more for connections than others do. Likewise, very large school districts (those with more than 50,000 students) spend more than three times more for wide area networks (WANs) than other schools or districts.

Experts agree that prices fall when you aggregate demand. In other words, larger customers get better deals (think of Costco). Given that more than 70 percent of our approximately 14,000 school districts are small (under 2,500 students), how do we get better prices? Forty percent of districts are already doing consortia purchasing either through their education service agency or state. However, that also means three in five districts are not. Consortia can lower prices for bandwidth, transport, equipment, and other aspects of technology in schools.

Smart budgeting

More than two-thirds of districts agree: The biggest barrier to providing a robust network is related to ongoing, recurring expenses. It’s time to sit down with your chief financial officer and have a heart-to-heart conversation about this reality. With districts moving to new digital resources and enabling BYOD and/or one-to-one initiatives, the fiscal pressure on monthly costs for the network will increase—it must. And, like providing electricity at the school, it is simply a part of the expected infrastructure.

To reach President Obama’s ConnectED goal of equipping 99 percent of classrooms with broadband connectivity in five years, we need to get serious and update our networks. We cannot finance the school network with donations and a bake sale—we need to budget and plan for these costs. We can’t keep holding back our students and teachers with antiquated, slow networks. It’s time to get serious about making the digital conversion and enabling learning for today and tomorrow.

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