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Wiring Rural Schools: Reaction, New News

Mark-Zuckerberg-Priscilla-Chan-blog.jpgOver the past several days, Education Week has taken an in-depth look at the challenges of bringing affordable high-speed Internet to rural schools.

There are encouraging signs: A recent analysis of federal data by broadband advocacy group EducationSuperHighway, for example, found that the number of students without access to minimally adequate Internet connectivity has been cut in half in just two years. The average price that schools are paying for bandwidth has also declined by 50 percent.

There are also signs of hope in places such as Calhoun County, Miss., featured in today's final chapter of our Reversing a Raw Deal series. After years of being stuck paying $9,275/month for Internet service that barely works, the district there is on the verge of a major breakthrough, due in large part to the Federal Communications Commission's recent overhaul of the E-rate program (which helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications service.)

You'd think 7,500 words would be enough to cover the issue, but on a policy issue this complex there's always more nuance to be found. Below is a round-up of some of the reaction Education Week has heard on our reporting, as well as some recent development on the issue.

The E-rate's new "high-cost" requirement for telecommunications carriers could have a big impact.  Essentially, the new regulation states that telecoms who receive so-called high-cost universal service support to bring broadband to rural homes and businesses, including through a program known as the Connect America Fund, will now be required to offer competitive rates and speeds to rural schools and libraries as well. 

In Chapter 2 of Reversing a Raw Deal, I pointed out that this new regulation does not appear likely to help spur new competition in hard-to-reach places like Quemado, N.M., because it only applies to carriers within their existing service areas.

However, both the FCC and WTA, a trade association that represents rural telecoms, point out that local "rate-of-return" carriers (including WNM Communications, the small company that currently serves Quemado) will be affected by this new regulation just as much as the large carriers who don't want to serve such remote schools. They argue that means that prices are likely to come down for Quemado (currently paying more than $3,700/month for 22 megabits per second of bandwidth) even without new competition. 

That may be turn out to be true, but it will take a while to get sorted out: The crux of the new regulation is defining what "competitive" rates look like in a places such as the remote western half of New Mexico. Telecoms of all sizes are currently raising quite a stink about that, and the FCC has yet to make a decision on how to proceed.

Did the FCC miss the boat by not updating the E-rate's discount formula to account for the disadvantages faced by rural schools?

Schools and libraries are eligible for different discounts on telecommunications services based on the number of low-income students they serve (as determined by eligibility for the National School Lunch Program). The discount rates range from as low as 20 percent to as high as 90 percent, depending on the type of school and service.

In his blog, consultant Doug Levin of EdTech Strategies LLC makes the argument that this was an overlooked problem during the E-rate modernization process:

Given disparities in pricing (such as those reported on in Education Week), the current E-rate discount matrix is unequivocally and demonstrably unfair to rural communities who are facing a double whammy: They have fewer resources at their disposal and they pay higher prices for the same levels of broadband service....we won't be able to fully address the rural school broadband issue until we revisit the structural deficiencies in calculating discount rates.

Levin also argues that the administration of President Barack Obama was wrong to set national school-connectivity goals that fell (just a tiny bit) short of expecting high-speed broadband for ALL students.

The message the Adminstration sent and continues to send here is that the rural issues highlighted in the Education Week piece are simply intractable and that the political will does not exist within the Administration to try to address them.

The president's ConnectED plan called for bringing high-speed Internet to schools serving 99 percent of U.S. students by 2018.

A big gift from Facebook's founder

Few groups have done as much to document school-connectivity issues as EducationSuperHighway,  the San Francisco-based nonprofit that last week released a comprehensive state-by-state report of how the nation is doing when it comes to bringing affordable high-speed broadband to schools.

In conjunction with the release of the report, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan announced (via a Facebook post, of course) a $20 million donation to the organization.

If you've followed my posts, you know I care deeply about giving everyone the opportunities of the Internet.

In schools, Internet is critical for enabling something we know leads to better results: personalized learning.

Most schools in the U.S. are connected, but less than half have high-speed broadband.

This means most students can't use personalized learning software that helps them learn content they're interested in, at their own pace and in a style customized to them.

Zuckerberg had previously donated $3 million to EducationSuperHighway.  In addition to its research and advocacy efforts, the group is working directly with states to provide support and technical assistance to help get schools wired.

To see how your state is doing, visit the group's interactive webpage.

Photo: Facebook president and CEO Mark Zuckerberg walks to morning sessions with his wife, Priscilla Chan, during the Allen and Co. Sun Valley Conference, in Sun Valley, Idaho in 2011. --Julie Jacobson/AP-File


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