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Translation Please? Ed-Tech Mumbo Jumbo for Dummies

Note: Taryn Hochleitner, a research associate at AEI, is guest posting this week.

This week I've been looking at challenges to modernizing E-Rate, but wanted to pause and make sure we're all on the same page with some of the relevant technology jargon. Specifically, we often hear four words in conversations about increasing schools' Internet access: broadband, fiber, wireless, and bandwidth. I sort of understand them, but I'm not embarrassed to say I sometimes have trouble explaining exactly what they mean and how they relate.

While policymakers, education policy wonks, and education leaders are trying to have smart conversations about school infrastructure--something they'll have to do more often in the digital age, regardless of E-Rate--it seems rather important they can keep these terms straight. You might already know this stuff, but if not, I won't tell. Here's the layman's low-down so you can keep up with the techies at the water cooler:

Broadband: In simple terms, it's a type of Internet connection made up of multiple channels that can transmit information simultaneously. This type of connection is always on and is faster than dial-up.

Types of Broadband Connections

Fiber Optic: Fiber converts signals carrying data to light and transmits the light through a bundle of very thin glass threads. This type of this type of transmission is fast and reliable, but sometimes requires costly installation.
Wireless: Wireless networks have no physical connection between the sender and receiver, using radio waves to transmit signals. This is less reliable than fiber, but makes for easier, cheaper set-up. In place of wires, these networks require other equipment, like access points and routers. (This is the key to understanding E-Rate discussions about changing the categorization of "priority" services. Wireless services are listed as priority 1, but access points and routers are priority 2 services; because of increased demand and funding caps, priority 2 services usually don't get funded.)

Bandwidth: Bandwidth generally describes the capacity of a broadband connection. It refers to the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another (to or from your computer) in a given time period. This is often expressed in bits (of data) per second, or bps. Higher bandwidth allows more data to travel at one time.

So, to borrow an often-used car analogy, imagine broadband is a highway with a speed limit, and bandwidth represents the lanes. The more traffic, the more lanes you need if you want to maintain your speed. I'm taking my family's Ferrari out for a joy ride. Just because the car has the ability to accelerate to over 200 mph, if the four-lane highway is filled with other cars I certainly won't be going that fast. Getting from point A to point B is a combination of highway lanes (bandwidth) and speed limit. That combination determines the number of users and activities a broadband network can handle.

You can now imagine how one-to-one device programs (consistently high-traffic areas like New York City streets) or mass online testing (rush hour) might require broadband with more bandwidth (more lanes) to allow more users to operate at the same speed at the same time.

So maybe you're not ready to make a run for the head of your company's IT department, but understanding these terms will help you keep up with debates about schools' service needs and our goals for E-Rate funding.

Tomorrow we'll conclude with some thoughts on President Obama's own E-Rate vision.

--Taryn Hochleitner

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