Broadband connectivity has grown drastically, but there is still room for improvement

Nearly 60 percent of school districts across the county now meet the Federal Communication Commission’s internet connectivity benchmark, representing a 25 percent uptick since 2020, according to new research from Connected Nation and Funds For Learning.

That said, there remains significant progress to be made — 27.6 million students still attend schools that lack adequate bandwidth to support digital learning in the classroom.

“During the pandemic, we have witnessed just how important robust connectivity is to our nation’s students and teachers,” said Emily Jordan, Connected Nation’s vice president for Connect K-12, which provides internet speed and pricing information to help state and district leaders identify potential alternative broadband solutions and negotiate better deals for services.

“And, given the unprecedented level of state and federal investment in learning devices such as laptops and Chromebooks for student use, it’s now more important than ever that state and school district leaders everywhere strive to achieve the FCC’s 1 Mbps per student bandwidth goal so that poor connectivity is not a barrier to digital learning,” Jordan said. “While these findings are encouraging, there is still much work to be done.”

The FCC’s bandwidth benchmark of 1 Mbsp per student was established in 2014 through the E-rate Modernization Order. For the first time, the median bandwidth per student across all K-12 school districts nationally has increased to a level above this benchmark, to 1.25 Mbps per student. According to the report, that increase means many K-12 students are now connected in the classroom at speeds that enable more immersive digital learning experiences, such as virtual reality or other technologies that can make lessons more fun and engaging.

One potential reason for the improvement is the reduced median cost per megabit for school internet access over time. Since 2015, the median cost per megabit paid by school districts nationally has decreased by 88 percent — including a nearly 25 percent ($0.46 per megabit) decrease from 2020 to 2021 to a median cost of $1.39.

Unfortunately, approximately 1,700 school districts across the U.S. are still paying more than $5 per megabit, and 746 districts are paying more than $10 per megabit. The issue is expectedly worse in rural areas where competition among providers and fiber infrastructure are far more limited.

“With the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act in March and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November, Congress has dedicated more than $53.5 billion available to states in middle- and last-mile broadband infrastructure funding through the U.S. Treasury and NTIA (with even more available directly to grantees under other programs to be administered by NTIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Services),” the report states. “These programs, when leveraged alongside the stewardship of available E-rate resources, have the potential to dramatically improve the telecom landscape in entire regions within states that have long suffered from aging infrastructure, lack of competition, and high prices.”

Both the California State Senate and Assembly unveiled their budget blueprints for 2022, which included goals of providing broadband access to inaccessible rural and urban communities and boosting 21st-century infrastructure, including education and broadband. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget also includes spending in several areas to improve broadband access to underserved areas.