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Bringing Schools Into the 21st Century

When EducationSuperHighway was founded in 2012, only five million students had high-speed broadband access. That number has now jumped to 25 million. What is the blueprint to the organization's success?
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This old beast definitely doesn't have access to Wi-Fi. (Photo: verdecanyonrailroad/Flickr)

This old beast definitely doesn't have access to Wi-Fi. (Photo: verdecanyonrailroad/Flickr)

Being a member of the class of 1999 had its perks. We got to live in fear and hope that we may be the last graduating class before Y2K brought upon the apocalypse. We had the amazing science fiction sequel of the same name with Malcolm McDowell as our unofficial mascot. And we were able to mess around with this awesome new thing called "the Internet."

Back then, this last part wasn't seen as purely positive. To parents—or, "'rents" to use the youth parlance of the era—the Internet was one giant infestation of creeps, Satanists, and perverts; misinformed news hype only exacerbated this opinion. Fast-forward 16 years, and more people are online than ever before—more creeps, Satanists, and pervs among. But it's no longer seen as a horrible danger as much as a necessary tool for our society's growth.

"Our kids are growing up digital natives. So it's weird when they step off the school bus, they step into the 20th century."

"Everyone is realizing that technology used properly can be a tremendous value to the classroom," says Evan Marwell, founder of EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit attempting to get every American classroom up to speed. "Our kids are growing up digital natives. So it's weird when they step off the school bus, they step into the 20th century."

Not every school bus, of course, and not every classroom, which is what makes it such a big problem.

As more schools turn to the Internet as an integral part of the lesson plan, the ones that can't are left on the wrong side of the educational divide. And it's not just about having any access, but the quality of access—imagine those low-resolution stutters that appear when your family members or roommates try to stream their various shows using the same bandwidth, and then extrapolate that across dozens of classrooms. If time is money, then time spent waiting for that episode of Nova to buffer is wasted learning potential.

That's where EducationSuperHighway fits in. When the organization was founded in 2012, Marwell estimates five million kids had high-speed broadband access. That number has jumped to 25 million, or nearly half of the nation's public elementary and high schools. At this rate, Marwell believes the group will be wiping their hands clean of a job well done by July of 2020.

What is the blueprint to the organization's success?


The first step was making people aware of the problem. In 2013, they launched a Web-based speed test that allowed schools to test their downloads and uploads. They found that only 37 percent of schools had enough broadband to "meet the current needs" of digital learning, and a whopping 99 percent wouldn't have the bandwidth needed over the next five years. With that data, they convinced the White House to launch ConnectEd, an initiative aimed at bringing high-speed broadband to 99 percent of the nation's classrooms.

For funding, they dipped into the Universal Service Fund, a remnant from the Communications Act of 1934, when the Federal Communications Commission instituted a fee on interstate long-distance carriers in order to subsidize telephone service to low-income and rural areas. (The entire concept of telephonic communication only works if everyone has access.) That focus on telephone hook-up remained until the Telecommunications Act of 1996 tweaked the mindset toward "advanced telecommunications services." Telecom companies fought some, as the tweak cut into their profits, but, in 2011, the FCC finally began sifting USF money from normal telephone-related subsidization toward expanding broadband access.

But how could this pool of money be sent in the right direction?

EducationSuperHighway moved onto phase two, which included visiting each of the nation's states, one by one. "Turns out, this is an issue governors can really do something about," Marwell says. "Especially when they have access to $3.5 billion a year [from the USF]." So far, the group has convinced 39 of 50 governors to commit publicly to upgrading. The 11 remaining are more an indication that their state already has great broadband access, or that Marwell and company just haven't secured meetings with them yet. "High-speed broadband is kind of like apple pie," Marwell says. "Everybody wants more of it."

After the approval, the logistical planning begins. This means facilitating a relationship between the schools and service providers in the area. Then, the connectivity countdown can begin, depending on what infrastructure is already in place. "If they already have fiber, it can happen in as little as six months," Marwell says. "If they need fiber, it can take as much as two years."

The next stage of the program—phase three—is about costs. "Today, the median price of bandwidth for schools is about $11 a megabit, down from $22 a megabyte in 2013," Marwell says. The goal is to get that down to $3 a megabit, so schools can afford buying the bandwidth as it becomes needed. This price decrease is accomplished by some good old supply and demand. As an example, Marwell cites what happened in Montana, after Governor Steve Bullock lent his support to the project. "We've engaged with nearly 40 service providers there," Marwell says, "and the net result is that schools are getting more bids." More bids means more competition and a smaller price for the schools to pay.

It's important to keep in mind that high-speed broadband in schools doesn't just mean students and teachers get connected. The act of bringing it to the school means that infrastructure needs to be laid, which is valuable to everyone in the vicinity. "When you're bringing fiber to schools, you're bringing fiber to the community," Marwell says. "It helps bridge the divide in a lot of rural communities that haven't been able to get access."

By 2020, then, the question is no longer going to be if communities have access, but what they're doing with it.