Special to WRAL Tech Wire

(Editor’s note: Now in its fourth year, the 12 Days of Broadband runs Dec. 4 through Dec. 19 highlighting a dozen innovations and stories directly impacted by the expanding reach of high-speed connectivity this year in North Carolina and throughout the country.)

RALEIGH, N.C. – Millions of students around the country go to school every day without internet or broadband connections, without access to 1:1 computing, and without the benefit of modern learning devices.

The N.C. School Connectivity Initiative (SCI) is the culmination of several years of vision surrounding the 21st century classroom, and developing a North Carolina workforce poised to meet the challenge of a global economy.

The North Carolina Department of Public Education (NCDPI) supports this effort through a collaboration between many private-sector service providers led by AT&T, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink along with MCNC, the non-profit operator of the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN); The William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, and N.C. Information Technology Services; or ITS. NCREN provides the backbone broadband services through the SCI so that all 115 K-12 public school districts as well as interested charter schools in the state have a high-speed, direct connection to this robust education networking infrastructure.

Recurring funding has been allocated from the N.C. General Assembly to support this effort. These funds are designated for broadband access, equipment and support services that create, improve and sustain equity of access for instructional opportunities for public school students and educators throughout the state.

The success of the SCI is unmistakable, with enhanced fiber services and improved educational outcomes documented in almost every county. More than half of the initial district connections already have been upgraded due to growth in traffic volume driven by digital learning. The SCI also has addressed potential bottlenecks introduced by network appliances like content filters and firewalls by providing bundled filtering and firewall options to schools. The client network engineering service, managed at MCNC, also provides engineering support for network assessments to help with designs and approaches for contemporary school-level wired and wireless networks.

According to NCDPI’s Wireless & 1:1 Survey Findings Report from May 2013, K-12 bandwidth utilization has been increasing at nearly a twofold rate year-over-year, requiring faster and more complex circuits and equipment at higher costs. The performance of NCREN has exceeded expectations, the study indicated, with a reported average 99.95 percent uptime across all public school districts and charter connections.

The Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate program provides $2-3 billion per year to schools for Internet access, infrastructure and telecommunications services. Last year marked the third straight year of record setting E-Rate dollars requested by North Carolina applicants.

Since 2003, 99 percent of schools across America have been connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, simply being connected to the Internet is no longer enough to make use of the best (and often free) online learning tools.

The typical school in America has the same amount of Internet access as the typical home – with 100 times more users. Capacity, not access, is what prevents schools from using digital learning to improve student outcomes.

Former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, who also is a former public school teacher, announced this year a new initiative called DigiLEARN that “will help build a pathway so that we can scale digital learning all over the world.”

NCDPI’s legislative update to the State Board of Education in January touched on digital learning, but also noted the importance of the backbone infrastructure and the internal infrastructure to make it all work.

“We believe in the transformative potential of digital learning to improve outcomes for our students by personalizing learning and reducing administrative burden on teachers. To take full advantage of online tools, we must be sure that every school has a learning-ready, high-speed Internet connection,” the briefing stated.

According to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, only about 39 percent of public schools have wireless network access for the whole school.

NCDPI’s Wireless & 1:1 Survey Findings Report had a high response rate from public school districts and charters and provided an accurate representative on what’s happening at the school level. According to this study, 1,816 schools in North Carolina need in-building wireless network upgrades with 130 that have network support for 1:1, and 385 who have implemented 1:1.

In January, the former connectivity services manager and E-Rate Specialist for NCDPI said thanks to the ongoing support of the School Connectivity Initiative, every school receives a high-bandwidth, highly-reliable connection on campus, but the state of networks inside schools vary widely based on the survey results, noting that inside-the-classroom access still remains a pain point with internal infrastructure – especially in large schools.

Those schools with high-density wireless generally have robust internal networks that a potential service provider could operate as a service. Interestingly, 130 schools have wireless networks that could support a 1:1 program in North Carolina, but have yet to do so, according to the most recent data available.

Seventy schools indicated no wireless coverage in their school, again referring to NCDPI’s Wireless & 1:1 Survey Findings Report. Approximately 818 schools reported marginal coverage (one wireless access point for three or more classrooms) – these schools typically provide some coverage in common academic areas like libraries and portions of buildings for occasional use. Another 928 schools have intermediate coverage (one wireless access point for two classrooms) – these schools have more widespread coverage across the campus and may have limited areas of high-density coverage. Finally, 515 schools have high-density coverage (one or more wireless access points per classroom) – these schools have sufficient coverage to implement 1:1 programs campus wide.

Schools with no wireless network will generally require a full rebuild of their entire network to support wireless. Those schools with marginal or intermediate coverage will require more study to determine the appropriate upgrade solution. While some schools are nominally ready to increase their coverage to high density, others will require more extensive rebuilds. However, in aggregate, engineers determined from this study that it can be assumed all schools in the intermediate or marginal categories will have significant work to move to high-density wireless.

So, what is a good solution for Wi-Fi in schools?

Phil Emer, Director of Technology Planning and Policy at The Friday Institute, where he leads the NC Education Cloud initiative funded federally under North Carolina’s Race to the Top grant, said that while many districts have leveraged one-time funds to upgrade Wi-Fi capacity in schools, there is no sustainable model. E-Rate provides discounts on internal network infrastructure, he explained, but only as a second priority and even then very few schools in North Carolina would qualify for E-Rate Priority 2 discounts.

North Carolina schools enjoy great connectivity, but there are bottlenecks inside schools. This survey identified the need for approximately $80 million in one-time and $25 million in recurring funding for modern high-density wireless infrastructure upgrades and ongoing refresh. This is in addition to the $50 million local education agencies spent on high-density wireless infrastructure using Race to the Top funding.

Moving forward, it may not be enough to find capital dollars for one-time upgrades – rather, as some have expressed, an approach of managed wireless services in schools by providers with service level agreements could be an option.