I had the recent opportunity to hear about the results of EducationSuperHighway’s analysis of E-Rate spending at the FCC’s E-Rate Workshop last month. EducationSuperHighway’s findings demonstrate how Alaska remains an outlier that warrants special considerations when it comes to E-Rate reform. Below, I compare EducationSuperHighway’s insights with the reality in Alaska:
Insight 1: We face an urgent challenge to ensure that our students do not fall further behind
EducationSuperHighway notes that 40 million students lack adequate access to high-speed broadband, and that poor and rural districts were more likely to fall in this category. This is indeed true for Alaska. 79% of the districts I work with do not meet today’s connectivity standards.
Insight 2: Schools are not meeting the ConnectED goals because high-speed broadband is not affordable
This is certainly true for Alaska. Schools that have more money/students and are closer to connectivity sources are the ones that are meeting the ConnectED goals, leaving behind those poorer, smaller populated, rural schools – like those in Alaska. Indeed, the most isolated schools are often the most expensive to serve.
Insight 3: Schools that are able to afford high-speed broadband provide an actionable roadmap to enable every school to meet the ConnectED goals
The actionable roadmap suggested by EducationSuperHighway – migrating to fiber, purchasing to scale, taking advantage of competition and taking location initiative – admittedly disregards the smallest schools and underestimates the cost of migrating to fiber in remote, rural communities. Rural Alaskan schools are hundreds of miles from the connectivity source with little hope of a real fiber solution in the foreseeable future due to the climate, terrain, permitting and rights of way issues, and the dearth of roads. Satellite and microwave middle-mile solutions are expensive to deploy and maintain in remote Alaska. Thus, rural Alaskan schools cannot expect middle-mile solutions at urban fiber rates and will continue to rely on significant E-Rate support to educate our children. No amount of competition or large-scale purchases can change that reality. The unaffordability exists even when school districts come together to aggregate purchasing power and in competitive environments, which they frequently do.
Insight 4: 96% of schools could meet today’s internet access and WAN standards if the FCC focused the E-rate program on broadband, but meeting the five-year ConnectED goals will likely require a combination of lower prices and more resources
We wholeheartedly agree with this insight. But what about the 4% that can’t meet today’s Internet access and WAN standards, let alone the ConnectED goals? Those are the schools in remote, rural Alaska that I’ve been referring to. As the FCC considers E-Rate reform this summer, they must not forget this 4%, for whom Internet connections at school are often the best connection available in their communities.
To ensure that these remote, rural communities continue to get the available connectivity that they need, the FCC must prioritizing some funding requests over others. My employer, General Communications, Inc. (GCI), has proposed an E-Rate “Priority 0” that would help guarantee E-Rate support for connectivity to rural-remote communities in Alaska and the lower 48 before Priority 1/2 funding is disbursed. Rural-remote school districts spend more on transport, because they are the furthest away from Tier 1 Internet POPs. This high-cost service does not exist for most urban and suburban schools and libraries. As previously noted, rural communities disproportionately lack adequate Internet connectivity and need more support for middle-mile infrastructure to remote locations, not less. Establishing Priority 0 support for distant connections from a rural community to the Internet will help to ensure that these communities are not disproportionately affected by a revision or elimination of the Priority categories or the distance component of the per-student/patron cap, therefore reducing the anti-rural nature of some E-Rate reform proposals.
We urge the FCC to continue the current E-Rate program in Alaska, in addition to creating financial opportunity for build-out of terrestrial infrastructure for Alaska.
Are your school’s needs being met through E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.