Interesting article in e-School News today on the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) e-Rate survey. According to the report, more than half of school and library respondents say they provide some form of wireless internet access for school employees and students, but almost 80 percent of those same respondents said their broadband connections are inadequate. Fifty-five percent of those who said their broadband connections are inadequate said that slow connection speed was the deciding factor in that decision.
The e-rate is a program in the US that provides discounts to assist most schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access, and has been around since 1996. Key findings of the report are:
- 95% of all E-rate survey respondents have some form of terrestrial broadband connection to at least one facility, while 2% use satellite and 3% use dial-up.
- However, nearly 80% of all survey respondents say their broadband connections do not fully meet their current needs.
- Slow connection speed is the primary reason current Internet connectivity does not meet the needs for 55% of these respondents.
- 39% of E-rate survey respondents cite cost of service as a barrier in meeting their Internet needs, and 27% cite cost of installation as a barrier.
- 56% of all E-rate survey respondents expect to implement or expand the use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years, and 45% expect to implement or expand the use of handheld devices for educational purposes.
- 10% of E-rate survey respondents have broadband speeds of 100 Mbps or greater and most (55%) have broadband speeds greater than 3 Mbps.
- More than half of school districts (60%) subscribe to a fiber optic connection.
- 66% of respondents provide some wireless connectivity for staff, students or library patrons.
- For schools, e-mail is the most used application (almost all schools, 98%, regularly use or access e-mail), and the most essential (69% consider it the most essential).
- For libraries, online reference materials are both the most used application (86% of staff and patrons regularly use or access online reference materials) and the most essential (62% consider it the most essential).
The survey is interesting to me in light of what is happening in New Zealand, with the government plans to invest up to $1.5 billion in open-access, dark-fibre infrastructure to accelerate the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband to 75 percent of New Zealanders over ten years. In the NZ context, Ultra-fast broadband (UFB) is defined as a fibre-to-the-premise broadband service providing downlink speeds of at least 100 Mbps and uplink speeds of at least 50 Mbps. For education, this includes a plan to provide 97% NZ schools (99.7% of students) with access to Ultra-fast Broadband (100megabits/second) by 2016.
According to the 2009 OECD Broadband portal summary of advertised broadband download speeds, NZ isn’t faring too badly by comparison to other countries (Portugal and Japan excepted 🙂 )- but we can’t rest on our laurels. What the e-rate report draws attention to is the fact that this is a bit of a pandora’s box – once UFB is experienced and used in education, the opportunities it creates for learning in turn creates more demand for both speed and access. Our policies and strategic planning both now and for the future needs to reflect this reality. In the current economic and political climate it may be all too easy to cut corners on UFB investment, but it’s a bit like building highways for the future – it requires a long term focus, and while building just two lanes might save money at the moment, the inevitable need to increase the number of lanes in the future becomes an even greater cost and inconvenience.