How Much It Will Cost to Connect (Almost) All Schools

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How much will it cost to "Keep calm and connect all schools"? Try $3.2 billion. That's how much CoSN (Consortium for School Networking) and the EducationSuperHighway say it will cost to equip and update public K-12 schools' existing infrastructure in order to meet President Obama's goal of connecting 99% of students by 2018.

Despite "nearly universal support" for increasing funding for school networks, this new report (PDF) from the two nonprofits says "there has been little data entered into the public record on the amount of funding actually required to ensure that every school and library has the LAN, Wi-Fi, and WAN equipment it needs."

"This is the first time that we have come out with an actual number," EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell tells EdSurge. "It's based on an actual analysis rather than simply saying 'let's double the pool of funds needed for more broadband.''"

This report follows an April 2014 report (PDF) by EducationSuperHighway that analyzed current E-rate spending. "That first report was about getting bandwidth to the school door," Marwell tells EdSurge. "This is the second half of the puzzle. It's about the networks inside the building and what it takes to get bandwidth inside the classroom and to students' devices."

The report dives into fine detail, estimating how much it will cost schools to purchase, install and maintain equipment including wireless access points, wired drops, switches, ports, firewall and fiber cables. These per-classroom, per-school and per-district cost estimates were developed in consultation with 50 district chief technology officers, along with equipment vendors and networking experts.

To make the estimates, the authors also relied on previous studies, such as this Fall 2013 survey from CoSN and MDR, which found that only 57% of elementary schools and 64% of secondary schools say they have wireless Internet connectivity in all of their classrooms.

According to the report:

"...the model projects that schools will require approximately $2.9 billion of E-rate subsidies over the next four years to upgrade their LAN, WAN, and Wi-Fi networks. Assuming that libraries add an additional 10% to the upgrade cost, we arrive at a total E-rate subsidy requirement of approximately $3.2 billion or $800 million per year for the next four years."

These numbers will come in handy as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updates its policies for E-rate, a federal program that subsidizes the purchase of telecommunications services in schools and libraries. On May 8, the FCC boasted that the E-rate program had already committed $450 million for broadband in schools and libraries, which it says is "six times the amount approved at this time last year."

Marwell is optimistic about current legislative efforts to increase the overall transparency and efficiency of the E-rate program. "We're hearing that the FCC will do something at the July meeting," he says. "Some issues have a lot of consensus, such as focusing the [E-rate] money on broadband and phasing out 'legacy services' [such as landline phones]."

A more contentious issue is finding ways to lower the cost of broadband for schools. One solution that Marwell believes would be incredibly effective--but also difficult to implement--is to increase schools' options for bandwidth providers. However, "when you start talking about increasing competition, there is a natural resistance from vendors," he warns.

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