Education Week - January 13, 2016 - (Page 14)

REVERSING A RAW DEAL PART 2 'Washington Gave Us Leverage' The federal effort to deliver affordable high-speed Internet to rural schools has brought new hope to one of Mississippi's most disconnected districts By Benjamin Herold 14 | EDUCATION WEEK | January 13, 2016 | I nside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters last May, Mike Moore sat stoically, his nerves betrayed only by the pen bouncing in his fidgety hands. For years, the superintendent of Mississippi's 2,500-student Calhoun County schools has been charged outrageous rates for Internet service so slow his teachers couldn't get online to take attendance. But following the FCC's overhaul of the E-rate program, the district's fortunes had abruptly turned. Moore had been invited to the nation's capital to tell federal officials how Calhoun County's dramatic transformation came about, and what lessons it might hold for the rest of the country. It began, the superintendent said, with a phone call from Washington. Bureaucrats were skeptical of the district's claim that it was getting billed $9,275 a month for a mere 3 megabits-per-second of bandwidth, delivered to its schools over old copper lines. "I'm not going to say they didn't believe us," Moore told the group of FCC staff members and other experts. "But they said, 'Can you send us your last 12 months [of] bills?' " The feds had a vested interest. For almost two decades, the E-rate has been picking up most of the tab for the exorbitant rates that rural schools are often charged for subpar Internet service. Since 1996, the program has distributed about $31 billion. While that money has helped connect almost every school in the country to the Internet, rural schools continue to find themselves at a huge disadvantage when it comes to prices and access to fiber-optic cables. To help close the gap, the commission voted in 2014 to overhaul the program. The goals, FCC officials said, are to upgrade nearly every school to a high-speed connection, while also bringing prices down by as much as 25 percent. To make that happen, the commission voted to pour an additional $1.5 billion a year into the E-rate, as well as to approve a series of rule changes aimed at spurring more competition among telecoms in rural parts of the country. After proving just how dire its situation was, Calhoun County became one of the first school systems in the country to test the commission's new approach. Amazingly, the strategy worked, Moore told the panel. The mere threat of new competition lit a fire under the district's previously unresponsive Internet providers, the superintendent maintained. Suddenly, he said, those same telecoms were offering high-speed fiber-optic connections, at rates far lower than what they were charging schools for the outdated copper lines already in place. "I loved it," Moore said. "I really wanted to be able to tell these private companies, 'Now, we can control you a little bit. You don't control us.' " Access and Affordability If it can happen in Calhoun County, FCC officials and school broadband advocates would like to believe, it can happen in the rest of rural America, too. But the challenge is steep: The typical rural district pays almost 2½ times as much for bandwidth as its urban and suburban counterparts, according to a recent analysis by the nonprofit broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway. Rural schools are also twice as likely to lack access to the technologies experts describe as essential to keeping up with the ever-growing demand for more bandwidth in the classroom. And in places such as Quemado, N.M., there don't appear to be any quick fixes. The benefits of decent broadband service are abundantly clear in scenes from the local district's 109-student K-12 school, which in 2012-13 finally won a years-long fight to upgrade from antiquated copper wires

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - January 13, 2016

Education Week - January 13, 2016
Education Still Struggling for Traction as Campaign Issue
School Revenue Squeezed in Oil, Coal States
Feds to K-12: Ensure Safety For Muslims
Report Roundup
News in Brief
Political Winds Buffet Tenn.’s Achievement School District
Charter Sector to Get $1 Billion Boost From Walton
In the ‘Chess Capital’ of St. Louis, Game Takes Root in Poor Districts
Blogs of the Week
Education Week Launches Premium Site for K-12 Companies
The Slowest Internet in Mississippi
Rural Schools, Telecoms Battle Over Internet Pricing
‘Washington Gave Us Leverage’
Amid Its Own Changes, Research Office Gears Up for New ESSA Duties
Education Department Begins to Scope Out ESSA-Era Role
Blogs of the Week
Own the ‘Messy Dress’ of Scholarship
Stick to the Truth
Embrace the ‘Hurly Burly’
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Edu-Scholars and the Public Square: What Is Our Responsibility?

Education Week - January 13, 2016