(Editor’s note: The Broadband Report is a regular feature in WRAL Tech Wire.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Leaders are hoping to turn E-Rate conversations into action this week.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding a workshop on Tuesday focused on E-Rate reform and the future of high-capacity broadband networks and strategies for schools and libraries. Two North Carolina leaders will join 11 other technology and telecommunications experts from across the country on the agenda.
Phil Emer, Director of Technology Planning and Policy at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University, and MCNC President and CEO Joe Freddoso are on the agenda’s four-hour Education and Library Technology Experts Roundtable, which will be a moderated discussion covering several topics related to ensuring schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband.
In North Carolina, efforts are being led in driving towards a digital learning transition (House Bill 44) – a transition that is built around supporting personalized learning for all students. That transition will require a robust network infrastructure down to the classroom level in every public school.
Emer explained that the North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative (SCI) brought high-bandwidth connectivity to all public schools in the state and now significant emphasis needs to be on supporting that network infrastructure as well as access inside the schools.
“We have built a model through the SCI that applies rigorous planning, engineering support, and consortium buying to school Internet access.” said Emer. “We are eager to apply that model in North Carolina to expanding the SCI to the classroom and individual user level. We believe that our approach, if applied more broadly nationally, could play an important role in a modernized and more efficient E-Rate program.”
The Congressionally-mandated E-Rate program has provided technology funding to schools and libraries since 1998.
An estimated 72 percent of public schools today have the broadband speeds necessary to fully access the Internet, according to California-based nonprofit Education Superhighway. While 99 percent of public schools are connected to the Internet, they lack the high-speed connections necessary to support the explosion of devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — and education applications to make full use of the Web in the classroom.
Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway, also will participate in the roundtable discussion on Tuesday.
In the group’s latest report called Connecting America’s Students: Opportunities for Action released in April, it says as a new generation of education technology and digital learning opportunities enter the classroom, basic Internet connectivity is no longer sufficient to educate and prepare America’s children for the modern age. To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education and are prepared to compete in today’s global economy, the report summarizes, schools and libraries need high-speed broadband and ubiquitous Wi-Fi.
According to the 2013 results of Education SuperHighway’s National SchoolSpeedTest, an online tool used to measure available bandwidth at school sites, the median bandwidth per school in the U.S. is 33 Mbps. This leaves the median school in the U.S. almost 25 percent behind the current goals and more than 90 percent below the five-year goals.
Additionally, many schools in areas that are hard-to-reach or where broadband is too expensive are significantly further behind, noting that 50 percent of students in America would have only the equivalent of dial-up speeds (up to 56 Kbps per student) if their classrooms were to transition to a 1:1 digital learning environment.
Sixteen years ago, the FCC established the Schools and Libraries Universal Support Mechanism, or E-Rate, to bring advanced services to schools and libraries across America. The program represents the federal government’s largest education technology program.
In June 2013, the FCC initiated a thorough review and modernization of E-Rate built around three goals: increased broadband capacity, cost-effective purchasing, and streamlined program administration. That same month, President Barack Obama made a stop in North Carolina to announce the ConnectED initiative, a plan to connect U.S. schools and libraries with broadband Internet connections of at least 100 Mbps with a target of 1 Gbps within five years.
The drive to transform the program into a high-speed broadband fund to enhance digital learning for students and library users across America has been underway since last summer, but it has picked up tremendous momentum since President Obama noted it in the State of the Union in January.
In the State of the Union, the president further outlined the ConnectEd vision for reform. The following month, the president announced plans for an immediate down payment on ConnectED with private-sector support and an additional $2 billion from E-Rate to connect 20 million more students to next-generation broadband and wireless in 2014. That $750 million down payment saw commitments of services and equipment from companies such as Apple, Verizon, Microsoft, Sprint, and other leading telecom companies.
The FCC workshop is open to the public. To view the live webcast, go to www.fcc.gov/live on the day of the event.