Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor recently approved a regulation to improve the Internet speeds of Alaska’s public schools. This is great news for Alaska’s schools, specifically those in rural Alaska with less than 10 Mbps download speed per school. As I’ve shared in numerous posts, Alaska’s vast size and challenging geography prevents many schools from receiving high-speed bandwidth. The average Internet speed in Alaska is the slowest in the country. A new study featured in the Washington Post reveals that the average speed in Alaska is just 7 Mbps. In a world where high-speed broadband is defined as 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and is growing to 1 Gbps per 1,000 students in the next five years, Alaska’s schools are at a disadvantage, especially with the promise for technology to close the opportunity gap.
The Alliance for Excellence in Education and the LEAD Commission recently published Schools and Broadband Speeds: An Analysis of Gaps in Access to High-Speed Internet for African American, Latino, Low-Income, and Rural Students. The author, John B Horrigan, PhD., noted that only 17.9 percent of students in remote rural areas of the U.S. have access to Internet speeds of 100 Mbps. In comparison, Alaska does not have ANY schools in rural-remote areas with 100 Mbps Internet speeds.
In an age where online applications, testing, lesson plans, and storage are increasingly the norm for schools across the globe, our students in Alaska continue to be underserved. Dr. Horrigan states “students in schools with Internet speeds of 10 Mbps or less are characterized as those at a disadvantage in contrast to others due to the relatively slow speeds they experience at school. Students in schools whose Internet speeds are 100 Mbps or more are at an advantage relative to others, in that they enjoy fast online speeds at school.” Some of Alaska’s schools have less than 5 kbps/student available during peak use. But this will soon change, largely because of the vision and leadership from the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD).
Two years ago, the NSBSD took action. Peggy Cowan, NSBSD Superintendent and Dr. Lisa Parady, former NSBSD Assistant Superintendent worked with their legislators, Representative Benny Nageak and Senator Donny Olsen to promote an idea to expand the efforts of the Universal Services program, E-Rate to leverage more bandwidth for students. Cowan said, “The NSBSD Board of Education has prioritized broadband in their legislative advocacy for more than five years. Equity of access provides equity of educational opportunities. Our rural students need more access to virtual experiences than their urban counterparts, not less. We are grateful to the legislature for their recognition of the needs of all students of Alaska and this step towards increasing opportunities for our students.”
The Lieutenant Governor recently filed the regulations presented from the Alaska State School Board adding new sections to implement funding for the improvement of Internet speed at public schools. Effective 11/13/2014, Register 212, January 2015. “AS 14.03.127 provides the authority for a district in which one or more schools qualify for a discounted rate for Internet services under the federal universal services program. These districts may apply to the department of education for funding to increase the download speed of the Internet to 10 Mbps for a circuit or connection that is accessible to student Internet users at a school operated by the district.” Schools that applied by the December 1, 2014 deadline will be notified by the department no later than January 30, 2015.
Today, this vision and leadership has become a reality for students across Alaska, thanks to the drive and direction from the NSBSD. Parady (now Executive Director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators) shares, “One of the greatest challenges facing Alaska’s students and educators is simply the tyranny of distance – our state is so vast and our schools so scattered. The great equalizer is broadband – the chance to take content into every corner and to every student. To do so, we need bandwidth, it’s just that simple, and last year the legislature supported this initiative which delivers a down payment on the path to digital equity by beginning to bring equity to all schools by supporting connectivity at a floor of 10 Mbps. As a state we need to stay the course to ensure our students are competitive in a global landscape.”
This is a big win for school districts in Alaska that are struggling to catch up with the rest of the country. We have not arrived, but we are on our way and must continue to work.
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