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How K-12 Education Networks Fare in 2015

A survey of K-12 leaders reveals where school districts are making progress and where they're facing challenges as they provide Internet access to students.

A third annual survey gives a glimpse into how K-12 school districts fare when it comes to their education networks. 

CoSN’s 2015 Annual E-rate and Infrastructure Survey shows that school districts have made progress in a number of important areas, but still have some work to do. And over the past two years, its data helped inform a 2014 decision from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize the E-rate program and increase funding by 60 percent. This program provides discounts for schools and libraries on high-speed Internet and telecommunications services.  

Let's take a look at a number of areas that stood out in this survey of 531 district administrators and technology leaders.

Fiber is king this year with 72 percent of respondents running lit fiber, which is used regularly to transmit data, on their network. Last year, 46 percent of school districts installed it.

"The word is getting out that if you really want robust bandwidth, fiber is the way to go," said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. 

Speaking of robust bandwidth, nearly a quarter of school districts aren't even close to meeting the FCC's short-term broadband connectivity goal of 100 megabits per 1,000 students, and one out of three school systems don't use current wireless industry standards. On the plus side, school districts are more confident that their Wi-Fi can handle mobile devices for each student, and Wi-Fi is available in nearly every high school classroom. On top of that, wide area network speeds of 1 gigabit or faster are becoming more common. 

Affordability has been the No. 1 issue for school district leaders over the last three years. While many schools are banding together in consortiums to buy bandwidth, this strategy isn't popular for local area network purchases. But it should be because schools can get better deals by working together and leveraging their group purchasing power. 

Overall, school districts are paying less for Internet service each month, and those that were paying high rates have been able to find better prices this year. Thirty-six percent of school systems said they paid less than $5 per megabit each month compared to 27 percent last year. And while 32 percent of school districts paid sky-high monthly prices of more than $50 last year, that percentage dropped to 19 percent this year. 

One reason for these dramatic differences in prices is a lack of competition for Internet service, particularly in rural areas. Fewer service providers and larger, more difficult areas to cover mean that rural schools often pay a premium for high-speed Internet.

Even schools that want to expand bandwidth can't always accomplish their goals. In fact, 14 percent of rural school systems can't expand their bandwidth because their service providers can't offer any more.

On the home front, school leaders still aren't doing much to help students access the Internet at home, a key step that CoSN says they should take, especially given stable five-year funding from E-rate. About three-quarters of school systems do not have strategies to work on at-home Internet access, down slightly from 82 percent last year.

"If we don't address the digital equity issue, it seems to me that we then risk having technology widen the achievement gap rather than narrow it," Krueger said.

In all, school districts are making progress on local area networks and Wi-Fi, and now it's time to focus on other areas, he said. Instead of asking whether a school district has Wi-Fi or bandwidth, it's important to think about how all the pieces of the education network are working together and how to make sure bandwidth can expand. 

More than two-thirds of school systems don't have enough bandwidth for the next 18 months, and that's a problem as Internet connectivity continues to grow exponentially each year. If school districts want to emphasize digital learning, they need to double bandwidth capacity every 18 months. This pressure on the network means that districts must have robust bandwidth, updated wireless standards and strong wide area network connections in order to help students learn digitally.