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E-Rate Is Billions Short on Meeting Schools' Wireless-Network Needs, Analysis Finds

An estimated $3.2 billion in new funds are needed to realize President Barack Obama's goal of providing all students with high-speed wireless Internet connections inside their schools and libraries by 2018, concludes a new analysis by two prominent education-technology organizations.  

That staggering sum represents a needed investment above and beyond the $2.4 billion currently directed to schools and libraries each year as part of the federal E-rate program. It does not include the additional billions needed to provide schools and libraries with broadband connections to the outside world, nor does it account for the estimated $1.6 billion annually it would take to maintain new in-school wireless networks once they are built.

The new projections come from the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, and EducationSuperHighway, based in San Francisco. On Wednesday, the nonprofit groups jointly submitted a first-of-its-kind analysis to the Federal Communications Commission, which is currently overhauling the E-rate, designed to subsidize schools' and libraries' telecommunications costs with fees raised from telecommunications companies.

CoSN and EducationSuperHighway are calling for the FCC to allocate $800 million per year in new E-rate funds specifically to improve and maintain schools' and libraries' internal wireless networks.

"Until now, the education community did not have the data to measure the investment required to solve this problem," said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger in a statement. "Now we do." 

President Obama's ConnectED initiative aims to connect 99 percent of U.S. schoolchildren to broadband and high-speed wireless by 2018. The White House and the FCC have declined to put a price tag on such a massive upgrade to schools' technology infrastructure. Advocates have suggested it might require expanding the E-rate program to anywhere from $5 billion to $11 billion annually, as well as pursuing strategies to lower the cost of broadband for schools and possible changes to the established practice of funding a wide range of communications technologies, including phone lines and pagers.

Not everyone, however, believes the best fix to the E-rate involves more funds. Some policymakers—and some members of the FCC—think the answer instead lies in smarter, more efficient use of existing E-rate dollars, as well as strategies to drive down the price of technology for schools. 

In Februrary, following months of public commentary, the FCC announced that it would repurpose $2 billion in existing E-rate funds to focus on broadband. 

EducationSuperHighway wants a portion of that money set aside for wireless upgrades, said Evan Marwell, the group's CEO, in an email. 

EducationSuperHighway and CoSN also want $800 million in new funds that would be designated specifically for the internal equipment and services designated as "Priority 2" under current E-rate regulations. That includes the equipment —such as routers, switches, wiring, and content filters—that are needed for robust local-area networks (LAN), wide-area networks (WAN), and Wi-Fi networks, but that have largely gone unfunded in recent years due to schools' expansive appetite for "Priority 1" services, which focus on bringing Internet connectivity from the outside world to a school campus.

The internal equipment is necessary to support universal connectivity and 1-to-1 learning, in which each student uses his or her own digital device inside the classroom.

The groups are calling for the desired new funds to be allocated on the basis of need, with priority given to schools and districts that do not yet have adequate wireless networks in place.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by CoSN, 40 percent of U.S. classrooms have no Wi-Fi at all, and 57 percent of U.S. school districts say their wireless networks cannot currently support a 1-to-1 deployment. 

Many of those districts have some, but not all, of the components in place for a strong wireless network, potentially lowering the cost of necessary upgrades. 

According to the CoSN/EducationSuperHighway analysis submitted to the FCC: 

  • 57 percent of U.S. public schools require W-Fi upgrades
  • 50 percent of districts require content filter and firewall upgrades
  • 40 percent of schools require local-area and wide-area network switch upgrades
  • 26 percent of schools require internal fiber-optic cable upgrades
  • 20 percent of classrooms require wiring upgrades

To determine the cost of providing such equipment and services, CoSN and EducationSuperHighway consulted with over 50 district chief technology officers, as well as vendors and networking experts, to develop an economic model they refer to as the "LAN/Wi-Fi ConnectED Cost Model."  The model includes equipment and labor costs, but does not include network-design, configuration, and operational costs, nor does it include "higher-level infrastructure" that the groups deem as optional.

Add it all up, CoSN and EducationSuperHighway say, and you get to $2.9 billion over the next four years in unmet need for schools, as well as a rough estimate of $300 million in unmet need for libraries.

And that's not counting regular maintenance and upgrades, which the groups say will require roughly $1.6 billion annually in E-rate subsidies beyond what has currently been budgeted. 

For now, though, the FCC's focus is on distributing the $2 billion in repurposed funding that has already been freed up.  As my colleague Sean Cavanagh reported in February, that money will likely go overwhelmingly to broadband connectivity, and most of it won't flow to schools until 2015.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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