Bringing Broadband to the School

From the Field

bladwin county

Baldwin County School District, Baldwin, Alabama

In 2011, Baldwin County School District launched the Digital Renaissance 1-to-1 program, an ambitious journey to provide students with the skills and tools necessary required to be college and career ready.

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As part of this project, the district completed an infrastructure overhaul to boost broadband access throughout the district. The district’s upgrade provided 2.5 gigabits (GBs) of internet pipe into the broadband system and connected the main office and the schools. It also included 1-gigabit switches that provide 1 gigabit to each wireless access point in every classroom. This new broadband backbone permits the seamless download of multimedia content into the classroom and students to create and share content via web 2.0 tools.

Resources

Easy access to reliable, robust, and cost-effective broadband provides the opportunity for students’ school experiences to include creating engaging text and multimedia projects such as videos, collaborative research with students on the other side of the state or the world, access to online courses not available locally, and the ability to talk directly with authors and experts. Teachers can collaborate with colleagues, participate in professional development online, and immediately analyze the results from online assessments to personalize instruction for each student.

Adequate Broadband

Districts must determine the extent of the infrastructure and capacity needed to support all users in achieving continuous full connectivity for all functions of the school district. This includes not just the broadband into the district, but also the networking across buildings and in classrooms. The infrastructure needs to be sufficient not only for the present, but also looking to future years, as device and network usage will undoubtedly grow over time.

The amount of bandwidth a district needs will vary significantly depending upon the number of devices in the district that will access a network as well as how those devices and networks are used. Uses of technology such as streaming video demand larger amounts of bandwidth than webpage viewing and online reading.

SETDA’s paper The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs makes general recommendations both for internet connection to the internet service provider and for connections from the district to each school and among schools within the district. The recommendations were based upon current trends and the real-world experiences of states and leading districts as well as input from experts from the private sector. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted these recommendations as bandwidth targets, and one measure of success of the modernized E-rate program will be the extent to which districts across the country attain them. These recommendations are:


Broadband Access for Teaching, Learning and School Operations   2014-15 School Year Target   2017-18 School Year Target
An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) At least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff
Internal wide area network (WAN) connections from the district to each school and among schools within the district At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff At least 10 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff

Assessing Broadband Speeds

To assess program needs and progress in providing internet access that meets the current and future needs of students and educators, education leaders must evaluate the quality of their broadband prior to any device deployment and then set a schedule for regular analysis. There are numerous commercial tools that will help with this analysis by showing real time availability as well as real time usage and display such information as a percentage of usage of available bandwidth. Districts need to consider internet connections to the service provider, internal connections between the schools and the district and internal wireless access inside of each building and instructional areas. School speed tests can play an integral role in this process. One commonly used speed test tool is Education Superhighway’s tool. As of the spring 2014, approximately half of the states have used the speed test tool in statewide campaign to provide data to document needs throughout their states. Given technical differences in the way various school speed test tools report progress in meeting state-specific and/or SETDA recommendations, SETDA commissioned Netcraft, a highly-regarded internet services company, to conduct an independent technical analysis of few tools, including their strengths and weaknesses, to illustrate why these differences occur. The analysis includes observations based on measured data and concludes by offering recommendations on how best to use each of the tools to inform decision-making by education leaders and policymakers.

Broadband Funding Options

There are federal grant programs that districts can investigate to be sure they are taking full advantage of possible funding sources related to access.

E-rate

  • Most schools and libraries are eligible for E-rate discounts for specific services and products related to telecommunications services, telecommunications, internet access, internal connections and basic maintenance. The amount of the discount depends on the level of poverty and location of the school or library. Schools should consider researching their E-Rate eligibility.

Rural DLT

  • The Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loan and Grant Program (DLT) is designed specifically to meet the educational and health care needs of rural America. Through loans, grants and loan/grant combinations, advanced telecommunications technologies provide enhanced learning and health care opportunities for rural residents. Eligible purchases include: Interactive video equipment, audio and video equipment, terminal equipment, data terminal equipment, inside wiring, computer hardware and software, computer network components, acquisition of instructional programming that is a capital asset, acquisition of technical assistance and instruction for using eligible equipment.
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