Wednesday, October 28, 2009

US education broadband policy developments

Support for dedicated broadband infrastructure for education in the US appears to be growing.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently filed a broadband cost model with the Federal Communications Commission. The model estimates the total cost of providing fibre optic connectivity to "anchor institutions, such as public schools and libraries, community colleges, and hospitals." The FCC is currently seeking comments on the model, due shortly.

Commentary from
"The cost model breaks areas down according to population density -- dense urban, urban, suburban, and rural. Overall, the model is meant to help estimate the costs for deploying fiber optic connections to anchor institutions that don't already have broadband hook ups -- some 80 percent of an estimated 123,000 institutions across the U.S.

The ultimate price tag, according to the foundation's cost model, ranges between roughly $5 billion and $10 billion. Estimated costs per site vary. For instance, a low-end cost projection in a dense urban environment could cost as little as $15,000 per site.

Meanwhile, a high-end installation in a suburban area could go as high as $205,000 per site. The estimates include costs to install the fiber optic cable, the cost of the cable, and termination equipment."
This submission, in some ways an education specific US equivalent of the UK fibre deployment costs study prepared by Analysys Mason for the Broadband Stakholder Group in September 2008, relates to both the Foundation's and Microsoft's membership of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. This was formed earlier this year and is being coordinated by by John Windhausen, Jr., President of Telepoly Consulting and also author of the excellent EDUCAUSE report "A Blueprint for Big Broadband".

From the SHLB Coalition mission statement:
"The mission of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition is to improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries and health care providers so that they can enhance the quality and availability of the essential services they provide to the public and serve underserved and unserved populations more effectively. The Internet has become a fundamental cornerstone of modern education, learning, health care delivery, economic growth, social interaction, job training, government services, and the dissemination of information and free speech. High-capacity broadband is the key infrastructure that K-12 schools, universities and colleges, libraries, hospitals, clinics and other health care providers need to provide 21st century education, information and health services. The Coalition is dedicated to ensuring that each and every library, health care provider and school (including K-12 schools, colleges and universities) has robust, affordable, high-capacity, broadband connections."
The statement goes on to recognise community access opportunities that networks serving such anchor insitutions offer:
"Broadband networks deployed to serve these community anchor institutions should be open to interconnection by other broadband networks serving the community as a way to spur additional broadband investment. Ultimately, all homes and businesses should have access to affordable, high-capacity broadband. Allowing interconnection to networks serving community anchor institutions will provide jumping off points for distributing additional broadband services into surrounding neighborhoods, including residences and other community anchor institutions."
It also echoes the important differences between consumer and institutional connections:
"...these community anchor institutions have unique needs for very high-capacity bandwidth that are different from those of residential consumers. The eligibility of community anchor institutions to apply for funding should not be dictated by geographic boundaries or definitions that are more appropriate for households."
Several other US organisations are getting on board with this agenda too. The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) in June 2008 published "High-Speed Broadband Access for All Kids: Breaking through the Barriers". On the importance of ensuring sufficient bandwidth to support effective concurrent access:
“Based upon our observations, most schools in the country are at T1 (1.54 Mbps) connection speeds between the school buildings with some having additional capacity. With these bandwidth speeds, schools are trying to accommodate the technology needs of many concurrent users. Compared to the average household with broadband access of at least 5 Mbps, with just a few users, bandwidth in many schools is significantly lower with many more concurrent users. Broadband connection speeds in schools are already behind average households, and in the next few years as bandwidth needs expand, schools will need to significantly upgrade their high-speed broadband capabilities to try to keep pace with what children are accustomed to at home. Even in schools that are sufficiently connected with broadband, bandwidth demand is quickly exceeding capacity as they utilize advanced technology tools. Simply having connectivity is not enough: without measurable upgrades in bandwidths to allow for greater speeds – or even to maintain current speeds as demand grows, teachers and students will be severely limited in the technology applications they can utilize.”
The report's key recommendations on access bandwidths make interesting reading too:
"In a technology-rich learning environment for the next 2-3 years, SETDA recommends:
  • An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider of at least 10 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
  • Internal wide area network connections from the district to each school and between schools of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
In a technology-rich learning environment for the next 5-7 years, SETDA recommends:
  • An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
  • Internal wide area network connections from the district to each school and between schools of at least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff"
The report underlines the importance of an aggregated, community-led approach to broadband provision via a series of case studies of successful implementations at district, community and state levels.

The report also cites the School 2.0 eToolkit, developed by the The Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International with support from the U.S. Department of Education. This is designed "to help schools, districts and communities develop a common education vision and explore how that vision can be supported by technology." The toolkit includes a bandwidth planner which is intended to "to help school principals and district CFOs plan their bandwidth needs, demystify bandwidth for nontechnical educators, and bridge the knowledge gap between educators and technologists to improve strategic technology planning." The toolkit's Learning Ecosystem Map is also well worth a look.

Finally, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) have developed a Broadband Knowledge Centre to "highlight the issues of broadband needs and high bandwidth capability in schools." One of the reports cited, America's Digital Schools 2006, describes a "coming bandwidth crisis", which is now surely upon us:
"Districts report that the current bandwidth per student is 2.90 kilobits per second per student of external bandwidth to the Internet. Districts project that they will have 9.57 kilobits per second per student by 2011—a three-fold increase. To properly support a ubiquitous computing environment, the ADS 2006 team projects that an estimated 40 kilobits per second per student will be required. This is 14 times today’s bandwidth and four times where schools plan to be in 2011. If any other line item in a school district budget were to grow by 14 times over five years, and if the future costs were unknown and in most cases unfunded, it would be viewed as a crisis. Hence, we project that there will be a bandwidth crisis. The ADS 2006 team believes that the critical measurement is bandwidth per student, which directly correlates with the student’s browsing experience."
Three examples are presented: a typical elementary school, a typical high school implementing 1-1 computing in 2011 and a progressive high school doing the same. The schools require one T-1 line (1.54Mbps), one T-3 line (45Mbps) and three T-3 lines (135Mbps) respectively.

All of which analysis and insight rather puts the lip service the Digital Britain report paid to education, coupled with the lack of policy progress and development since, to shame?

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