The Need for (Broadband) Speed

School Infrastructure

The Need for (Broadband) Speed

Big companies rally around EducationSuperHighway's open letter to reform E-Rate

By Tony Wan     Jan 30, 2014

The Need for (Broadband) Speed

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted the need for better broadband access in schools. "With the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we've got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years," Obama said.

Today, 47 executives from the tech, entertainment, education, investment and banking industries are also showing their support--at least in name. CEOs from Adobe to Zillow have signed an open letter from EducationSuperhighway, a SF-based non-profit, urging the FCC to accelerate the overhaul of the E-rate program, which subsidizes technology purchases for schools.

"There is broad, bipartisan support from the business community to increase the quality of public schools, and access to technology is one of the main levers to achieve the goal," says Evan Marwell, chief executive of EducationSuperhighway in a conversation with EdSurge.

It’s one thing to put your name on a letter. It’s another to put money where your signature is. Of the 47 CEOs and executives, only one--Mark Zuckerberg--has contributed money ($3 million) to EducationSuperhighway. Most of the hard work of collecting, analyzing and reporting data about how schools’ Internet connectivity is being done by Marwell and his team of 16.

We have previously shared some of their startling findings: 72% of schools don't have enough bandwidth for digital learning (100 Mbps per 1,000 students), and schools pay anywhere from $2 to $25 per megabit of connectivity per month.

Addressed to Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC (which oversees the E-Rate program), the letter emphasizes the need to take the following steps:

  • Increased transparency and accountability. So far, nobody has done a good job of keeping track of how schools are spending their E-rate funds, Marwell charges. He offers one example: E-rate recipients are required to indicate what service provider they use and provide a description of the service in Form 471. But he says: "This is a paper form, and after it gets filed, it never sees the light of day. The FCC doesn’t track and follow up on how much bandwidth they're getting."
    Here, Marwell says EducationSuperhighway has stepped in, collecting forms from 1,200 districts representing $700 million of E-rate funding as part of its investigation of whether schools are overpaying for bandwidth. In February EducationSuperhighway will launch a beta web portal to collect this information online; Marwell hope the FCC will adopt the portal as part of its E-rate overhaul.
  • Focus spending on broadband. "Half of the things that E-rate funds, like landline phone services and web hosting, don't support broadband...Why should we spend money on yesterday's technology?" Marwell asks. He adds that the money saved by not funding what he calls outdated services can be used to provide more broadband access.
  • Investing in fiber infrastructure. The FCC should focus funds on helping K-12 schools invest in high-speed fiber networks that will deliver more bandwidth at lower prices. "Invest today, save tomorrow," says Marwell.
    He cites an unpublished report detailing how two Michigan schools recently made the switch: One was spending $11,700 per year for 3 Mbps of bandwidth. After spending $25,000 for a fiber connection, the school is now getting 1 Gbps for $3,000 a year. Another school was spending 1.5 Mbps for $6,000 a year; after spending $15K for a fiber network, it is now receiving 1 Gbps for $2,000 a year.
    Marwell estimates that "on average, we think the time that it takes for the savings to make up the cost for installing fiber is less than five years, and in some cases will be a lot faster than that."

Interestingly, none of the letter’s signees represent a telecommunications company, the ones that E-rate reform will likely affect. "We didn’t ask them because they already have a voice in E-rate reform and are filing comments,” Marwell says. “This was really about showing the FCC that there is broad-based support from across the American industries."

Sharing their findings about how much schools are paying for bandwidth will force telecom companies to offer more equitable bandwidth rates, Marwell says. By reforming E-Rate to ensure "transparency in pricing and bandwidth options, we believe we'll create an efficient market,” he says. “Rather than saying, 'Hey company, you should charge less,' we think the right way is to educate the consumers," says Marwell.

Ever the optimist, Marwell believes that E-rate reform will take place by the end of June 2014. He's encouraged by a Jan. 24 blog post from Wheeler, in which the FCC Chairman committed to "mak[ing] the necessary structural and administrative improvements to focus support on broadband services while making the program more efficient and easier to navigate for applicants. These improvements must also include strong oversight and enforcement..."

Still, there will likely be some time between the re-writing the rules and implementing them. Perhaps some of the big corporate CEOs who put their name to the letter could lend a hand--or some funding. "You don't just snap your fingers and stuff happens overnight," cautions Marwell. "But the sooner the FCC gets going, the sooner we can get schools ready."

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