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Broadband Upgrades for Montana Schools the Focus of New State Push

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CORRECTION

Montana will partner with a leading school-broadband advocacy group in an effort to bring fast Internet and functioning Wi-fi to all of the state's classrooms, Democractic Governor Steve Bullock announced today.

"In order to reach their full potential and enjoy equal opportunity in today's digital age, all K-12 students in Montana need access to high-speed Internet," Bullock said in a statement. "We are committed to making sure each school—rural or urban, big or small—has equal access to the promise of digital learning."

The governor's office and state department of public instruction officially endorsed statewide targets that would see every school offer 1 megabit per second, per student of bandwidth, as well as Wi-Fi networks that support 1-to-1 student computing.

The Obama Administration established those goals in 2013 as part of its ConnectED initiative. To help schools meet the targets, the Federal Communications Commission approved a raft of changes to the federal E-rate program, which subsidizes telecommunications costs for public schools and libraries.

Among the major shifts: A $1.5 billion increase in the program's annual spending, a new emphasis on funding internal connections inside schools, and a series of policy changes intended to help rural schools.

See: The E-rate Overhaul in 4 Easy Charts

The first step in Montana's efforts will be to assess schools' current levels of connectivity. As in many parts of the country, the problem appears to be particularly acute in rural and remote areas. 

"We have preliminary indications that about 160 [of 824] schools are stuck," said Jim Molloy, a senior policy adviser to the governor, in an interview. "They don't have fiber connectivity that will allow them to scale up as we move forward."

Montana schools are typically served by private providers. In general, Molloy said, they state's local and independent telecoms and co-ops do a better job of providing affordable Internet access to schools than do the major national carriers who operate in the state. But even so, he said, current projections are that only about 5 percent of Montana students will attend schools that offer the recommended connectivity within a few years.

To better understand the problem and come up with potential solutions, Montana is enlisting the help of San Francisco-based nonprofit EducationSuperHighway. The group was instrumental in pushing for last year's E-rate changes, and has worked with states including Arkansas and Virginia to promote price transparency and help structure new broadband procurement policies.

In Arkansas, for example, EducationSuperHighway determined that schools had better connectivity than even a state-run committee of experts realized, and that dramatic upgrades to a rickety state-run K-12 broadband network could be made simply through repurposing existing dollars, better leveraging new E-rate money, and upgrading from copper to fiber-optic lines.

"We believe that states can actually create change and accelerate upgrades at scale," Evan Marwell, the group's director, said during a recent interview. "Our role is to help convince governors to make this a priority and to empower states to make it happen as quickly as possible."

Among the supports that EducationSuperHighway will offer in Montana are an assessment of schools' current broadband status, a "comprehensive review of broadband challenges and opportunities for K-12 schools," an action plan, and experts on broadband networks to help individual districts get fiber connections.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the political party of Montana Governor Steve Bullock.  He is a Democrat. 

Photo: Montana Governor Steve Bullock arrives at Rocky Boy High School on Sept. 1 to talk with students about the state's Jobs for Montana's Graduates Program. --Roger Miller/Havre Daily News/AP

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