Future Tense

A Failing Grade for Broadband

Education technology can’t fulfill its promise if students can’t get online.

Bryan Molina a 8th grader works on his robot in the bilingual, project lead the way class at Escuela Vieau Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study, teachers are incorporating more technological tools into their classrooms, but they are concerned about whether students have the necessary connectivity.

Photo by Darren Hauck/Reuters

The Internet is becoming as critical to student success as textbooks and blackboards—in many parts of the country, even basic homework assignments require access to the Web. This reflects not only a greater variety of educational resources available online to students, but also the rising importance of digital literacy as a fundamental skill.

But even as companies create innovative new educational technologies—like cloud-based literacy programs, Skype-based tutors, and virtual math games—many policymakers and entrepreneurs are overlooking a critical factor that stands in the way of widespread adoption of these tools: adequate and universal broadband infrastructure. Without it, people in most parts of the United States are unable to use some of the most innovative educational technologies out there. As the tech leaps ahead and our infrastructure stays the same, the problem will only worsen.

A 2010 survey from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that 22 percent of households with school-age children did not have broadband at home. Nineteen million Americans—especially those in rural areas—don’t have access to broadband in their communities at all. For many students from low-income households, even a basic connection could be out of reach of the monthly budget. As a result, they are falling on the wrong side of a growing digital divide. Some end up huddling in McDonald’s and Starbucks just to complete homework assignments. In 2011, the public schools in Fairfax County, Va., an affluent district outside Washington, D.C., introduced an e-textbook program to replace printed textbooks. But the books worked only when students were online, and some features required high-speed Internet access. Ultimately, the district had to purchase an additional $2 million worth of textbooks to support students who did not have adequate access to use the electronic versions at home.

Research shows that these are not isolated incidents. According to a recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, teachers are incorporating technological tools into their classroom work now more than ever—even as they are concerned about whether students have the necessary connectivity. More than three-quarters of teachers interviewed say that they instruct students to complete assignments online, but nearly half believe their students don’t have access to the appropriate tools at school. And just 18 percent think their students have sufficient connectivity at home. Teachers in lower-income school districts reported that their students were “behind the curve” when it came to using digital technology. More than 80 percent agreed that right now, digital technologies are widening the gap between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts. And the problem is not just at home: Nearly 80 percent of the schools receiving subsidies for broadband connections through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate program have reported that they did not have the bandwidth to meet current needs, let alone support the applications of the future.

To take advantage of the wave of innovation in education, the nation’s communication policies need to be updated to rectify the current limitations and inequities. Currently, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: These new applications can drive demand for faster and higher capacity broadband connection, but without widespread access to those connections, widespread use of the technology will be limited.

Existing programs offered by both federal and local government could make a difference, as could private sector solutions. For example, the FCC’s E-Rate program could be updated. Since E-Rate was established in 1996, the number of classrooms with Internet connections has risen to 92 percent from 14 percent. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called for E-Rate to provide a 1 gigabit connection to every school in the country—a far more ambitious goal than outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s challenge to bring a gigabit connection to at least one community in every state by 2015.

That would be a vast improvement, given that some schools are still relying on decades-old T1 connections capable of speeds of just 1.5 Mbps to 6 Mbps—or not even 1 percent the speed of a gigabit connection. In many cities across the country, telephone and cable companies can’t even offer private customers a 1-GB connection. In order to meet Rockefeller’s challenge, the E-Rate fund will need to be reformed and expanded by an estimated $5 billion to $9 billion by the year 2020.

Cities like Santa Monica, Calif., and Seattle have taken it upon themselves and invested in their own network fiber infrastructure capable of supporting gigabit connectivity, including connecting all of the schools in the area. Other communities are looking at public/private partnerships with new providers to bring next-generation networks to their communities. For example, connecting schools is a priority of Google Fiber project in Kansas City. Working with the local governments in both Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., Google identified community anchor institutions that would receive free fiber connections if enough residents in their neighborhoods signed up for the service in advance. However, this type of strategy for determining what schools and neighborhoods get connected also raises concerns about disparities in access. Of the 202 “fiberhoods,” 180 qualified for the service, but many of the disadvantaged areas did not.

Assuring students’ access at home presents even more of a challenge. The 2010 National Broadband Plan developed by the FCC set a goal of ensuring that every household has access to a broadband service capable of download speeds of 4 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. That might be sufficient to stream a Khan Academy lesson now, but it won’t be enough to support the interactive applications of the future. And the goal only refers to access—it does not necessarily ensure that every household can afford the service.

Unfortunately, we don’t really have an equivalent E-Rate program to ensure that even kids from low-income households have home access to broadband. The Federal Lifeline program currently offers up to a $10 subsidy for basic telephone service for low-income households, but it has yet to allow those households to use the subsidy just for broadband access. Municipal networks across the country have been able to lower the barriers to access by offering residents high-speed connections at lower prices than most of the major telecom and cable operators. And Google is attempting to prove in its Kansas City project that it can make money off the $70 per month gigabit connection it offers while also providing a free 5 Mbps service tier for anyone who pays the $300 connection fee.

In both examples, new entrants—not the existing telephone and cable companies—are the ones offering faster connections. Yet the telecom industry is working hard to lobby against municipal networks and to push through state legislation that would prevent communities from building them in the future. Google Fiber has announced a partnership with the city of Austin, Texas, but it’s still unclear how much further the search giant will expand broadband service and whether it will continue to offer free service tiers to either residents or community institutions like schools.  

Entrepreneurs often suggest that innovation can happen only when government stays out of the way. But in order for innovative education technology to have widespread adoption, the government will need to play a role in supporting the development of next-generation networks and ensuring that they are accessible to everyone, everywhere.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.