Opportunity & Access

Solving the Problem of School Bandwidth

How to increase access to high-speed networks, and finally make digital learning in public schools a reality.

September 25, 2012

| by Lee Gomes

Connecting schools to the internet seems like a problem we solved long ago. It turns out, though, that U.S. schools are badly lagging in web connectivity; not because they aren’t connected, but because their pipes are too small. EducationSuperHighway is a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to doing something about that. We talked with CEO and founder Evan Marwell, who was one of the main speakers at the Symposium on Technology in Education, held earlier this month at Stanford GSB.

EducationSuperHighway sounds like an idea from the early days of the internet. What exactly is it that you are trying to accomplish now in 2012?

Our mission is to ensure that every K-12 public school in America has enough bandwidth for digital learning. But as soon as we say that, people say, ‘Why is that a problem? Aren’t all our schools connected?’ And that’s true; 97% of our schools have broadband access. The problem is that the typical school has the same amount of internet access that you have in your house. But they have 400 people trying to use it, and you have 4.

So how much bandwidth should schools have?

If you really want to make digital learning a reality, every school needs at least 100 megabits. Some need more, some need less. Right now, though, the average school has 10 megabits. And there is definitely a digital divide issue. For example, only 20% of the schools in the country are even capable of getting a 100-megabit pipe. But if you only look at schools in affluent areas, that figure rises to 75%.

What exactly are you going to do about it?

We think there are two main deficiencies. One is a deficiency of technical expertise necessary to set up and run a high-speed network. Large school districts have networking expertise, but most small schools don’t. So we are going to be what we call the Education Geek Squad to provide technical assistance to schools.

What is the other deficiency?

I think best practices for schools is for them to pay $10 a megabit per month for connectivity. That would mean that $1,000 a month for a 100-megabit connection. However, the median today for schools is about $40 a megabit. But I don’t want to spend less money; what I want to do is to take that $40, and instead of getting 20 megabits per school, I want to get 100 megabits.

U.S. schools today spend a total of about $1.5 billion on internet access and infrastructure, but that money is divided up by 14,000 school districts, all buying independently. So they’re not getting the prices that they should, because many schools lack purchasing expertise just like they lack technical expertise. We help there, too. We’ve talked to many districts who have greatly upgraded their capacity without spending a single penny more. In fact, many of them have gotten money back.

The United States has long been known to have a bandwidth problem, but it seems to be getting better. Won’t the problem with school bandwidth get solved at the same time that everyone else’s does?

Suppose today there are 40 million kids who don’t have digital access. And let’s say it takes five years for the problem to solve itself. Do we really want all those kids to miss out? I don’t think we can afford to wait.

Technology has to be part of the solution to the problems with our schools. Not the whole solution, but a part of the solution. And if you want technology to be part of the solution, you need bandwidth. Bandwidth is foundational.

Who is funding EducationSuperHighway?

So far, it’s all been funded by individuals like myself. We have a team of five, and four of us are full-time volunteers. We are folks who have made money in the Valley, and who now are looking for a way to give back. And we want to be able to give back not just with our money, but also with our skills and our talents.

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