The 2015 State of Education Networks: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

Last week, CoSN (in partnership with AASA and MDR) unveiled the results of our annual survey that laid out the state of connectivity in schools across the U.S. There is lots of data for both pessimists and optimists among us.

Without question, there are some major challenges that are holding many school systems back from having robust education networks with broadband and WiFi capacity. Score one point for the pessimists.

And there are also some encouraging signs that we are on the right track to reaching President Obama’s ConnectEd vision of having broadband and WiFi in 99% of classrooms over the next four years. Score ½ a point for the optimists.

Keith’s Bottom-line: While we are mostly on the right path, policymakers and educators need to keep their eyes focused on continued investments in robust, reliable education networks that enable digital learning. We have a lot of work to do to address issues of digital equity – meaning providing access for students when they leave our school campuses that enables them to do their homework.

Here are just some of the major findings from our 3rd Annual CoSN E-rate and Infrastructure Survey:

  • Affordability, affordability, affordability. This remains the biggest challenge for school leaders. Nearly half of school districts identified the cost of ongoing recurring expenses as the greatest barrier to robust connectivity. More than 1/3 of districts said that capital or upfront expenses prevent schools from strengthening their robust Internet connectivity. Approximately 1 out of 5 school systems are paying very high rates of $50/Mbps or more per month for their Internet connection, and 18% pay the same extremely high rates for their WAN connection.

The good news is that Internet connection costs have improved, as 36% – compared to 27% in 2014 – of school systems indicated their monthly cost per Mbps for Internet connection was less than $5.

  • Network speed and capacity. Alarmingly, nearly a quarter of all school systems have reached only 10% of the Federal Communications Commission’s short-term broadband connectivity goal (100 Mbps per 1000 students). 1 out of 3 school systems are not using current wireless standards. And 25% of school systems report their education networks are down for at least 3 days of unplanned Internet. How can teachers and students rely on technology when the network lacks capacity and speed?

The good news is that the majority (more than 70%) of school system leaders are using lit fiber for transport types for WAN operations – a significant one-year increase from fewer than half in 2014.

  • Lack of competition. Nearly half of school systems indicated that competition is a growing problem, especially in rural school systems. More than 1/3 of school systems have only one (or no!) broadband Internet provider. This lack of competition is at the heart of high prices. In addition, it makes it nearly impossible for many school systems to establish a redundancy plan.

The survey also details the impact of E-rate changes. Most educators are positive about the new focus of the Erate on broadband and WiFi, though there is widespread concern about the loss of funding for telephony.

Finally, the survey highlights the lack of progress in addressing digital inequity; for example, three out of four school systems do not have any off-campus strategies for connecting students at home or after school. (Check out my blog series on Digital Equity for a full discussion of these challenges.)

This is just a snapshot into what we found in the 2015 survey. There’s still major work to do. The best part of this CoSN survey data is that we increasingly know where we are making progress, as well as what continues to need attention. You can read the complete findings at: cosn.org/Infrastructure2015.

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