Nearly 80 percent of schools and libraries funded by the federal E-Rate program don’t have all their current needs met by their broadband connections, according to a recently released survey by the FCC. Fifty-five percent of those respondents blamed slow connection speeds.

Although the survey results were released to the public Jan. 6, the numbers were available to the FCC in May 2010. During that time span, in response to the survey, the FCC approved various upgrades to the current E-Rate program, which provides financial support for broadband connectivity in schools and libraries. The improvements will give schools and libraries faster and cheaper access to broadband Internet through the use of unused fiber-optic lines (called “dark fiber”) that are already in place across the country.

The rules for dark fiber use went into effect early this month, so it’s too soon to determine results, said Mark Wigfield, spokesman for the FCC. However, it’s something the commission will most likely track moving forward, he said. Over the years, dark fiber has fluctuated between an acceptable and non-acceptable method because it was undetermined whether it could be defined as an official and legal telecommunications service. The FCC determined that dark fiber use is allowed and that it would be beneficial for schools and libraries to put it into use.

The desire to improve broadband access is in response to the 2010 National Broadband Plan, put into effect by the FCC to ensure that nearly every American has access to broadband. The commission set a list of recommendations to reach the ultimate goal of bringing broadband to 100 million households at 100 Mbps, with broadband adoption as a whole at 90 percent. Reaching that goal would require the U.S. to surpass broadband investments made by other countries, which analysts said would cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars.

The plan also included upgrades to the E-Rate program, created in 1996 to provide support to help connect schools and libraries to the Internet. Since its inception, thousands of schools and libraries have applied through the Universal Service Administrative Company and benefited from millions of federal aid dollars. However, as demand increased for Internet-based tools for educational purposes, the plan became outdated.

Suggestions included either initiating a rulemaking to raise the $2.5 billion cap allocated to the program each year in order to account for inflation during the past 15 years, or providing more affordable broadband options to schools and libraries.

Along with the unused fiber-optic lines, the FCC has given schools the option to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home through a program called School Spots. After a short pilot program in select states, the program recently became permanent for schools wishing to participate.

Another pilot the FCC plans to launch by July is the Learning On-the-Go initiative, which will provide students with free wireless access for their digital devices outside school. Each student is responsible for obtaining his own portable device.

Other findings from the study released last week:

  • Fifty-five percent of respondents have broadband speeds greater than 3 Mbps, whereas only 10 percent have speeds of 100 Mbps or greater.
  • Sixty percent of school districts subscribe to a fiber-optic connection and 66 percent provide some wireless connectivity for staff, students or library patrons.
  • Fifty-six percent of all respondents expect to implement or expand the use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years and 45 percent expect to implement or expand the use of handheld devices for educational purposes.

     

Thirty-nine percent of respondents cite cost of service as a barrier in meeting their Internet needs, and 27 percent cite cost of installation as the barrier.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer