Connecting the last 3% of schools to fiber will be particularly challenging;
the majority of these schools are in areas that have not historically been economically viable for service providers. However, by approaching this challenge strategically we have the opportunity to bring digital equity to the students in these schools as well as high-speed broadband to more than 2 million people in underserved communities.
I. School districts aren’t asking for fiber infrastructure.
The first step in connecting schools to fiber is to make sure that the district
issues a Request for Proposal (RFP), or E-rate Form 470, requesting a fiber
connection to the school.
Unfortunately, in the 2016-17 E-rate cycle only 49% of the districts needing
fiber connections made such a request. This may have been because they were
unaware of the new options and funding available through E-rate, they didn’t
think there was a service provider that would offer them fiber, or they didn’t
have the necessary support to run a fiber procurement process.
II. Those school districts that request fiber are not receiving bids from service providers.
Among the 49% of districts that did issue an RFP or E-rate Form 470 requesting fiber for their unconnected schools, a third did not receive any bids from service
providers. This number rises to nearly half if bids requiring E-rate special construction funding are excluded, and demonstrates the importance of the
FCC’s special construction changes during E-rate modernization.
The net result is that only 25% of districts that needed fiber were able to get a bid from a service provider with a nearby fiber network. To address this challenge, state leaders are engaging both districts and service providers to help districts prepare RFPs and ensure that service providers bid on those requests.
III. Many school districts struggle to come up with the budget for fiber construction.
77% of the schools requiring fiber are located in rural and small-town communities. This increases the cost for districts to bring fiber to their schools, since construction must cover significantly longer distances. In addition, rural and small-town districts often have few resources available to pay for fiber construction because of their relatively small overall budgets.
The FCC took an important first step to address the fiber cost challenges faced by rural and small-town districts during E-rate modernization. To minimize
the upfront costs faced by districts to build fiber, the Commission made it significantly easier to use E-rate funds for fiber construction and created incentives for states to contribute 10% of the construction costs. In response, 18 governors and state legislatures created state matching funds with nearly $200 million of resources available to help defray costs.
As a result, approximately 25% of the schools that need fiber can be connected at no cost to the district.
Unfortunately, this still leaves more than 1,500 schools without fiber that are unlikely to be able to afford their share of the construction costs.
Approximately 30% of these schools could be connected at no cost to the district if their state established a fiber matching fund. For the remaining schools, we estimate that their districts face more than $68 million in out-of-pocket costs to bring fiber to their schools — approximately $104,000 per school.
In order to ensure that no school is left without scalable broadband infrastructure, states and the FCC could provide additional subsidies for these districts so no school is required to pay prohibitive one-time construction costs.
The good news is that plenty of funds exist within both E-rate and the existing state matching funds to make up this difference. Indeed, the entire cost of building fiber to the 2,049 schools that need it is less than the $900 million of E-rate funds that remain available in 2017.
Bringing Wi-Fi to Every Classroom
High-speed broadband that can support digital learning requires a combination of scalable broadband connections, sufficient affordable bandwidth, and robust Wi-Fi connections to support student devices in the classroom. In 2017, nearly 10,000 schools (12%) reported insufficient Wi-Fi in their classrooms, a 34%
decrease from 2016.
For the last three years, E-rate modernization has been delivering upgraded access to Wi-Fi into America’s K-12 classrooms. By providing every school with a $150 per student budget for the wired and wireless networks needed to deliver high-speed broadband to the classroom, E-rate has made it possible for 10,000 school districts to upgrade their Wi-Fi in the last three
years — seven times as many as were able to do so in the three years prior to E-rate modernization.
However, not all districts have taken advantage of the opportunity to bring Wi-Fi to their classrooms. More than half (52%) of school districts have at least half of their E-rate Category 25 budgets remaining, and 22% (representing 4.5 million students) have not used any of their funding. In total, $2.35 billion of E-rate Category 2 funds remain unspent and will expire in 2020.
Federal and state leaders must take action to ensure school districts know about the available funding and have the technical and procurement support they need to make effective use of the funds. In addition, federal policymakers can address this issue by ensuring that the E-rate program doesn’t change before districts have the opportunity to use the funds that were promised to help connect their classrooms