Getting Vertical: K-12 Education

How Schools Can and Should Fit into Our National Broadband Plans

By John Windhausen

The United States is finally on track to develop a national broadband policy. Unfortunately, there are very few public resources available to carry it out. In this environment of limited government funding, the bang-for-the-buck question becomes paramount: What broadband policies will deliver the greatest value? While many focus on unserved and underserved areas, an equally important priority is to ensure that our community anchor institutions – our libraries, schools, and health care entities – have sufficient broadband capacity.

Why is providing broadband to community anchor institutions so important? Community anchor institutions provide vital, essential services to some of the most vulnerable and at-risk populations, including disabled, unemployed, low-income and rural Americans. Public libraries make wired and wireless broadband connections available to the public at no charge so that people can submit job applications, apply for e-government benefits, and complete school homework assignments. Primary and secondary schools as well as higher education institutions use broadband connections for distance learning, multimedia teaching applications, and data-intensive research. Hospitals and rural health clinics need high-capacity broadband to exchange diagnostic information and medical records, and to provide remote monitoring of out-patients.

Unfortunately, the private sector often cannot satisfy the broadband needs of anchor institutions. Because they aggregate traffic from hundreds of users simultaneously, anchor institutions need very high-capacity connections – from 10mbps to 10gbps – the type of connections often used by businesses. But community anchor institutions are usually non-profit and often government-owned; they cannot afford to pay business rates. Furthermore, anchor institutions are less likely to purchase video entertainment programming (i.e. cable TV) compared to households, so their needs are often overlooked by broadband providers that are focused on selling residential service bundles.

Fortunately, Congress recognized anchor institutions’ need for high-capacity future-proof broadband connections when it enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year. Section 6001(b)(3) of that act directs the government to award grants to applicants that “provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment, and support to — schools, libraries, medical and health care providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education, and other community support organizations....”

Note that this language is not limited to unserved or underserved areas; this funding program was designed to benefit all Americans, including those in urban, suburban and rural areas.

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program created by the ARRA is well on its way to fulfilling this Congressional mandate. The infrastructure program is focused on awarding grants to build high-capacity middle mile broadband connections to community anchor institutions. Many grants have been awarded to non-profit state research and education networks and private sector companies that specialize in deploying fiber capacity to anchor institutions. Significantly, these broadband facilities must be open to interconnection so that surrounding homes and businesses (the general public) can benefit from this broadband deployment.

Despite the success of the BTOP program so far, the long-term prognosis for anchor institutions is unclear. According to our estimate, only about 20 percent of all anchor institutions are likely to benefit from the $4.7 billion in funding allocated to the BTOP program. The BTOP program is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2010, and there is currently no plan to continue it.

To its credit, the FCC (News - Alert)’s National Broadband Plan begins to pick up where the BTOP program leaves off. FCC Chairman Genachowski has eloquently explained the need for every community to have at least a 1gbps connection to its anchor institutions by the year 2020. But the FCC did not identify funds to reach this important goal.

To build on the BTOP program and achieve the 1gbps goal set out by the FCC, the federal government may want to consider creating a unified community anchor network. A UCAN could coordinate and expand capacity on existing municipal networks and state research and education networks, and build new networks where they do not exist. It also could work with the private sector and acquire broadband facilities more efficiently by aggregating the purchase of broadband facilities, which could lead to more affordable prices for anchor institutions.

Building high-capacity broadband to community anchor institutions can be the meta-infrastructure that enables telemedicine, distance learning, energy efficiency, improved traffic management, greater public safety, and many other essential services. A national plan to deploy high-capacity future-proof broadband pipes to every community anchor institution would provide a foundation for economic growth and improved quality of life for all Americans. IT

John Windhausen is coordinator of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (www.shlbc.org). He can be reached at jwindhausen@telepoly.com.

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