Friday, November 20, 2015

Rural schools paying big bucks for excruciating slow Internet connections, analysis finds

Calhoun County Schools in northern Mississippi are paying big bills for Internet service that many rural students are unable to use because the connection is so slow, Benjamin Herold reports for Education Week. Internet service for the 2,500 students in the district's nine schools is the slowest in the state, despite a hefty monthly bill of $9,275.

"Today, school secretary Lisa Sutherland is given 15 names to enter," Herold writes. "Each click of her mouse is followed by an excruciating delay. The system times out. Sutherland grits her teeth and starts over. Nearly half an hour after it begins, a process that should take seconds is finally complete." Mike Moore, the district’s superintendent, told Herold, “Frustrating is a mild word for it. Smaller districts like us are at a tremendous disadvantage.” (EducationSuperHighway graphic)

The problem is the same in other rural districts in the U.S., with 20 percent of rural schools still unable to access the fiber-optic cables that are bringing high-speed Internet to schools elsewhere, says analysis by the broadband advocacy group EducationSuperHighway, Herold writes. "And even when they do get decent connections, rural schools are typically charged far more than their urban and suburban counterparts. In places like the vast, sparsely populated plains of western New Mexico, that means telecommunications companies routinely bill $3,000 per month or more for Internet service most U.S. schools could get for one-sixth the cost."

"The result, experts say, is that many rural districts still face a steep climb to meet long-term federal goals for school connectivity, even though most currently provide students with the minimum recommended bandwidth," Herold writes. "Geography, bad policy and a severe shortage of technical expertise within schools all contribute to the problem. So do the business practices of telecoms: AT&T and Verizon have been accused in lawsuits and other legal actions of bilking the system of millions of dollars, while many smaller companies have taken advantage of local monopolies and generous federal subsidies."

"Ultimately, efforts to find a solution will be underwritten by the American people," Herold writes. "Fees on consumers’ phone bills fund a little-known federal program called the E-rate. The E-rate in turn covers a portion of the cost of phone and Internet service for schools and libraries. Since its inception in 1996, the program has paid out over $30 billion. This fall, it will begin paying out even more. The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a huge increase in E-rate spending, to $3.9 billion each year. Over the objections of the powerful telecom lobby, the commission also approved a number of policy changes intended to help rural schools . . . The idea is that more money, plus more competition, will add up to faster, cheaper Internet for thousands of schools. Critics on the right say the more likely result is wasteful spending."

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