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N.Y. Launches Ambitious Plan to Spread Broadband Technology

By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis

New York's governor wants to bring high-speed broadband access to all corners of the state with an ambitious plan that officials there say will spur economic development and improved access for students to new technology and digital curricula.

Last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan that would use $500 million in state money garnered from capital funds from bank settlements and make it available over the next four years to telecommunications companies as a dollar-for-dollar match to build out broadband and fiber systems, bringing services to areas that currently go without.

The New NY Broadband Program would require that providers pony up at least 100 mbps, or megabits per second, to customers and funding priority will be given to those delivering the highest speed at the lowest cost.

More than 2,000 of New York's public schools say they currently are using Internet speeds lower than 100 mbps, according to the governor's office, and nearly 500 public schools have no broadband service at all.

Ed-tech organizations like the State Educational Technology Directors Association have set a level of 100 mbps per 1,000 students and staff as the goal for schools this year, and have said schools should have one gigabit per second by 2017-18.

Stanley Silverman, the director of technology-based learning systems at the New York Institute of Technology, said such an initiative is critical to balancing some of the technological inequities that currently exist in New York among schools. The many new resources that allow for personalization of education—everything from tablets to video resources and the ability to analyze data—are just "ghost resources" if students and teaches can't access them, Silverman said.

"What we've effectively done is created a segregation system," he said. Students in more remote areas "essentially are not playing on the same playing field and yet they're being evaluated with the same tools."

For Kate Farrell, the superintendent of the 1,725-student Catskill Central School District, located just below the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, the new plan will improve the district's ability to extend learning time.

The district, which has a combination of rural and suburban Village of Catskill areas in its territory, has already invested in technology and has high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access in all of its three schools. However, students in its 1-to-1 laptop program can take their devices home, but they don't always have Internet access there, she said. "We're doing more work with the flipped classroom model and products that permit online conversations between staff and students to increase instructional opportunities," Farrell said. "There are sections of our district where Internet connectivity is lacking—either substandard or not available at all."

Silverman said Cuomo's plan is a good first step to rethinking the business model around broadband service and the need to provide it to the vast majority of students. But, he said, "the devil is in the details," and he worried that providers looking to make a profit may balk at providing the last mile, or 50 feet, of connectivity both in areas where population density is sparse and in highly populated cities.

But Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates improved school Internet connections, said in theory at least, the idea should work.

"When companies believe that they can get enough business to make it a good return on their investment of building high speed broadband or fiber out to a new community, they'll do it," he said. And if the state is footing the bill for half of that investment, companies can recoup their outlay more quickly, so "a whole new set of areas becomes attractive from a business point of view," Marwell said.

New York's broadband proposal has the potential to draw even more money for schools to the state, Marwell said.

Under the federal government's revamped E-rate program to help low-income schools and libraries pay for improved Internet connections, if a state provides matching funds the FCC will kick in 10 percent more for construction. That, he said, could make a big dent in the problem of inequity.


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