(TNS) -- The country's "extraordinary progress" connecting schools to affordable high-speed internet continued last year, according to a new analysis from broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.
All told, 94 percent of school districts in the country now meet the minimum federal connectivity target, the group wrote in its new report, "2017 State of the States: Fulfilling Our Promise to America's Students."
That means more than 39 million students and 74,000 U.S. schools now have access to internet speeds of at least 100 kilobits per second, per student.
In addition, EducationSuperHighway found that 88 percent of schools now say they have sufficient classroom access to WiFi, up from just 25 percent in 2013.
Still, though, finding affordable broadband remains a challenge for schools in some pockets of the country.
"We need to keep our foot on the accelerator," said Evan Marwell, the group's CEO. "I'm very confident we can connect the last 6.5 million kids."
Back in 2013, then-President Barack Obama announced a five-year plan to bring high-speed school broadband to 99 percent of the country's K-12 students.
To support that goal, the Democrat-led Federal Communications Commission in 2014 overhauled the E-rate, which helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services. Among the key changes: Expanding the program's annual spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, prioritizing broadband and WiFi, increasing price transparency, and enacting new rules designed to help rural districts get access to fiber-optic cable.
Many experts characterize E-rate modernization as an overwhelming success.
"It sparked really important cooperation between schools, service providers, and policymakers," said Reg Leichty, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Consortium for School Networking, the professional association for the nation's school-technology officers.
According to the new EducationSuperHighway report, more than 35 million students have gained access to high-speed internet since 2013. Ninety-seven percent of schools are now connected to the internet via fiber.
The price of bandwidth for schools has fallen dramatically, from $22 per megabit per second in 2013 to $4.90 in 2016.
And Marwell said districts like Oklahoma's 1,100-student Perry public schools—which recently quintupled its bandwidth, for just $60 more per month—have benefitted greatly from the ability to see what similar school systems are paying for their internet access.
"Essentially, they call up their provider and say, 'Hey, I see you are giving this other school district more bandwidth for the same money I'm spending. How come I can't get that deal from you, too?' " Marwell said. "It's just a matter of asking."
The majority of districts that still lack high-speed internet access could meet federal connectivity targets if they took advantage of new price transparency rules to push telecoms for better deals, EducationSuperHighway argues.
Even with all its successes, some supporters of the E-rate remain jittery about key aspects of the program.
Shortly after he took office in January, President Donald Trump appointed Republican Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission.
While Pai has voiced support for the overall goals of the E-rate, he joined fellow Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly in voting against the 2014 modernization order. Some of Pai's early steps as chairman have caused some concern in the K-12 community.
The biggest ongoing problem, some critics contend, is that the Pai-led FCC has been slow-walking the applications of hundreds of mostly rural districts looking to use the new E-rate rules to help fund construction of new high-speed fiber-optic networks.
That's a big deal because the internet connections in such districts have long been the most difficult to upgrade.
The single-school Woodman, Mont., district, for example, is stuck paying $167 each month for just 1.5 Mbps amount of bandwidth, delivered over an old copper line.
In May, the district submitted to the FCC a proposal to use both E-rate dollars and state matching funds to pay for internet carrier CenturyLink to build a new network that would deliver 100 Mbps via fiber-optic cable.
But the district's proposal, like numerous others, is stalled, leaving the project in jeopardy.
"They have red tape wrapped around these projects, and there's really been no meaningful movement," said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, a consulting firm that helps thousands of districts prepare their E-rate applications each year.
A spokesman for the commission declined to comment.
Harrington said he suspects the problems are in part the typical growing pains that occur when a government agency must implement new rules, and in part a reflection of the new FCC seeking to avoid federal spending that might lead to "over-building" of fiber-optic networks.
Another concern for E-rate advocates is that well over $2 billion in program funds set aside to help schools upgrade their WiFi networks remain untapped.
Under the new E-rate rules, each district is eligible for up to $150 per student to help pay for equipment such as routers, switchers, and wireless access points.
But that money is only available until 2020. EducationSuperHighway estimates that 52 percent of school districts have yet to tap at least half of the funding they're eligible for, and a quarter have not accessed any of the funding.
"First and foremost, it's a lack of knowledge," Marwell said. "There are a lot of districts that don't know this money is available to them."
He expressed concern that the money could go unspent—or that the new leadership at the FCC could decide to redirect the money to other purposes, or possibly even eliminate the funds earlier than 2020.
After several months of working at less than full capacity, the FCC now has its full complement of five commissioners, including three Republicans and two Democrats.
Chairman Pai must be reconfirmed for a new term by the U.S. Senate sometime this fall.
©2017 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.