The City of Chicago School District 299, the city’s largest school system, pays $9.80 per megabit per second (Mbps) per month for Internet connectivity. New York City Public Schools pay just $1.85. Maybe Chicago’s not getting a raw deal; chalk the price up to regional differences in Internet connectivity and service providers. Maybes it’s the size difference of the cities. Sure.
Wait. North Chicago School District 187, District 299’s neighbor, pays $4.12 per Mbps per month, and, what’s more, provides eight times the speed that District 299 does. West Chicago Elementary School District 33 pays $5.20 per Mbps per month for ten times the wide area network (WAN) capability of District 299.
The good news is, District 299 just received a hefty chip for bargaining with its service providers: comparison. This contrasting of Internet access could have only happened in 2016. Why? Because EducationSuperHighway has released a beta version of Compare and Connect K-12 (CCK12), a tool that allows 13,500 school districts to compare prices, providers and speeds of Internet access.
EducationSuperHighway is a nonprofit on a mission to “upgrade the Internet access in every public school classroom in America so that every student has the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning.” The nonprofit hopes to ramp up every school’s Internet access to at least 100 kilobits per second (kbps) per student, the rate the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has said is necessary for basic digital learning. To put that in perspective, a family of four’s Internet connection through a cable modem clocks in at 20 Megabits per second. The FCC determined that, since not every student is using the Internet simultaneously, that 100 kbps would be suitable for basic digital learning like visiting websites and sending emails. Schools would have to buy faster download rates to watch videos or engage in more data-intensive activities. EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell recommends 1 Mbps per student—one thousand times faster than the FCC’s minimum—for a technology-heavy school. The FCC recommends all schools reach this speed by 2018. According to EducationSuperHighway’s State of the States report, 23 percent of American school districts don’t meet the 100 kbps standards. Those districts contain 21 million students.
For example, the large New York and Chicago school systems mentioned above provide speeds of 22 kpbs per student and 37 kpbs per student, respectively, falling well short of the FCC recommendations. Even starker is the price gap between schools not meeting the FCC’s standards and those that do: the failing schools pay, on average, $12.33 per Mbps, and the well-connected schools pay $5.07, according to EducationSuperHighway. The nonprofit has identified two of the three biggest hindrances to connectivity as financial: the price of broadband and insufficienct district budgets. Bandwidth demand in America is only going up, in many place by as much as 50 percent per year, EducationSuperHighway reports, so it grows more expensive for lagging schools to catch up year by year. Marwell hopes CCK12 will help districts stretch their dollars and lower the prices of their connections.
The data in CCK12 is publicly available from the FCC’s E-Rate, but it’s in Excel spreadsheets. The patterns are indiscernible to a layman. Enter EducationSuperHighway, stage right. Founded in 2012, the nonprofit has been laying the groundwork for this tool for years. Its first product was SchoolSpeedTest, which could measure a school’s connection speed. The company has since worked with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative and sculpted the $3.9 billion E-Rate program. EducationSuperHighway has also been advocating since E-Rate’s inception for the results to be made public. Finally, in March 2015, the FCC released E-Rate’s data, and EducationSuperHighway was ready. Its engineers had already begun building CCK12, and its researchers released the State of the States report, which detailed what percentage of schools in each state met the FCC standards. CCK12 zoomed in from the whole state to the individual districts.
Simultaneously, EducationSuperHighway has been working with governors across the nation to secure commitments to improve schools’ Internet access, and 2016, Marwell says, will be the year of making good on those commitments.
Speaking of data, where did 13,500 come from? The number of districts indexed by CCK12? Marwell said that many American school districts used E-Rate and are therefore within the purview of CCK12. He said his team has been able to verify the data on half of those districts, and the confirmation of the other half is the main target to hit before the full-scale release of the tool in fall 2016. The beta version highlights unverified connectivity statistics in brash shades of red.
The nonprofit’s target demographic, other than data-curious journalists, is school tech directors. During a 2015 pilot of the program in 20 Virginia schools, tech directors used the platform as leverage when negotiating with their broadband providers. EducationSuperHighway reports that schools in the pilot reached an average of five times their previous speeds and only had to increase spending by 15 percent. Not a bad return on investment.
Service providers seem to be on the hook to improve their offerings to retain customers. School districts now have a flashlight where once they were in the dark. Marwell, however, thinks talks between the two won’t be so fraught.
“This is a tool that will help people get more bandwidth for their budgets,” he said. “It’s a win-win opportunity. The amount of funding through E-rate is growing, so there’s an opportunity for schools to increase how much they spend. At the same time, the cost of additional bandwidth is so marginal for service providers that they can provide additional bandwidth. After talking to schools and service providers across the country, I’m more and more convinced the latter want to do the right thing. They understand that these kids are partially their responsibility.”
Update: This piece has been updated to include the FCC's recommendation for 2018 download speeds.