Free Tool Provides a Roadmap—Literally—For Faster, Cheaper Broadband in Schools

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As iPads, laptops and other learning gadgets increasingly make their way into K-12 schools, there’s one resource that more than 21 million students still lack access to in the United States: high-speed internet.

“We live in a very rural state and our fiber connectivity is not comparable to what you would have in some large populous states,” said Tom Hering, Director of Information Technology at Great Falls Public Schools in Montana. “We were starting to [exceed] our bandwidth capacity… With our goals as a district to move towards mobile technology and online curriculum, we needed to begin focusing on [increasing bandwidth].”

After some quick research, Hering came across EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit dedicated to bringing internet access to every public classroom in America. And today, the organization that helped Hering’s district reach its bandwidth goals released Compare & Connect K-12, a new free tool that CEO Evan Marwell says will help provide high-speed broadband at lower costs for school leaders looking to amp up students’ digital access.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about how we can improve the affordability [of broadband service for schools],” said Marwell, who was dubbed Visionary of the Year in 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle. “One of the things we can do to make sure districts get as much broadband as they are paying for is to share info about what other [districts] are getting.”

In order to allow districts to compare their options, EducationSuperHighway first needed to gather the data school leaders wanted. They turned to E-rate, the $3.9 billion Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program that helps 96 percent of schools get more affordable broadband. Public schools can apply for annual funding through E-rate, which involves itemizing the services they currently pay for, what providers they are buying from and how much they are spending for their broadband.

But all of that data was kept private. That is, until researchers at EducationSuperhighway closely examined the program back in 2012.

“We couldn’t see what [districts] were buying with that money, so we went to the FCC and said ‘you need to make this info public.’” The Commission was hesitant. So instead, EducationSuperHighway collected the data they wanted from thousands of districts themselves. That alone was enough to convince all five commissioners of just how valuable the data could be, Marwell said, and in 2014 the FCC ultimately agreed to publicly release its information on what kind of broadband service school districts are getting and how much they pay for it.

Now, Compare & Connect K-12—which maps the 2015 and 2016 E-rate application data—allows administrators, state leaders and even service providers to compare bandwidth speeds and broadband prices against school districts nearby or across the country.

For people like Hering, that’s a reason to celebrate. The tool gave the district the information and leverage it needed to negotiate with its service provider—midway into a 5-year contract, no less—a 330 percent increase in bandwidth at an only 8 percent price increase. The district now boasts a bandwidth of 1,000 megabits per second (Mbps), falling cozily in line with the FCC’s current bandwidth goal of at least 100 kilobits per second (Kbps) per student.

“It was a no brainer for an 8 percent increase in our monthly fees to triple our bandwidth,” Hering said. “I didn’t have to convince too many people of that.”

But Compare & Connect K-12 does more than just allow technology directors to view bang for buck. It also lets state education technology leaders check to see what districts in their jurisdiction are up to speed and which are in need of an upgrade. The dashboard allows them to toggle back and forth to see which districts are below the minimum bandwidth requirement, when contracts are expiring, where poor wi-fi has been reported, if schools are on non-fiber connections, or if the district hasn’t submitted enough information (which, according to Marwell, accounts for around 20 percent of public school districts on the site). It’s a wealth of information that Marwell expects will appeal to service providers looking to expand their coverage, too.

There’s also a feature that allows service providers and state leaders to see if a district has filed a Form 470, which is required in order to open up the competitive bidding process with E-rate. Administrators can even check to see if districts near them have submitted a Request For Proposal (RFP) for E-rate funding and copy their template to apply themselves.

Still, the tool isn’t for everybody. School leaders working with public charter schools, private schools, libraries or schools administered by Bureau of Indian Education won’t find their data on the site. (The only exception being in Arizona, where Compare & Connect K-12 does provide data for public charter schools.)

But that’s not stopping the team from pondering new methods of impact. Since unveiling a beta version of Compare & Connect K-12 in January, Marwell said EducationSuperHighway—which is funded by organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Learning Accelerator, as well as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who recently donated $20 million to the non-profit—already has ideas for where they might take the tool next. He’d like to “enhance the ability of users to take action,” whether that’s helping more districts get out RFPs or connecting them with service providers through an online messaging app.

As the need for fiber-optic cables and stronger bandwidth continues and limited district funding persists, students at schools without adequate bandwidth are losing out on digital opportunities that urban peers are more likely to come by, EducationSuperHighway’s state engagement manager Dan Runcie writes. But by allowing rural and other small budgeted districts to negotiate better prices and more bandwidth, Marwell hopes all students regardless of income or zip code will have the tools and skills they need to succeed.

“Creating opportunity is something that has long been of real importance to me,” Marwell said. “If we can get great broadband in every school, that would open up a wealth of opportunities for people no matter where they live.”

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