Bridging the Broadband Gap in Rural School Districts
Many view broadband availability the same way our nation viewed electricity in 1935 when the federal government created the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas. REA authorized the construction of utility lines into the most remote regions of the country. Today, such a gap exists in rural America for Internet access. This is particularly critical when it comes to Florida’s rural school districts responding to initiatives requiring online testing and digital learning.
For more than two years, the Florida Tri-Consortia consisting of the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC), the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium (NEFEC), and the Heartland Educational Consortium (HEC), have been working to bring about ground breaking changes to stimulate interest, secure federal resources, and help drive down the cost to make high speed broadband both available and affordable for the first time for rural communities.
The catalyst for these changes came in the form of an overhaul of the E-rate Modernization Program, a federal program managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and funded by fees collected from your telephone/cellular bills. E-rate is a federal program that reimburses school districts and libraries for certain technology expenses and bases its formulas on the number of free and reduced lunches served by each district or school. In the PAEC districts, for example, the discounts average up to 80%. The most critical change that occurred in the past year is that E-rate will now allow school districts to utilize these funds for expenses such as broadband fiber and other essential equipment to deliver high speed Internet. All of this means that most rural school districts will only pay about 20% of the actual cost of building a fiber network.
PAEC, representing the Tri-Consortia, delivered testimony before the FCC and urged them to consider such changes in the program. Sweeping changes took place in the FCC initial order April 2014 and later that same year in December. FCC rule changes adopted three goals for the E-rate program: (1) ensuring affordable access to high-speed broadband sufficient to support digital learning in schools and robust connectivity for all libraries, (2) maximizing the cost-effectiveness of spending for E-rate supported purchases, and (3) making the E-rate application process and other E-rate processes fast, simple and efficient.
The second significant step occurred late last year when the Tri-Consortia decided to ban together and release a bid for 32 of Florida’s rural districts for broadband services. The Tri-Consortia bid attracted major Internet companies. Comcast, AT&T, and Information Transport Solutions (ITS) were awarded the bid in January 2015 and work soon began in several panhandle counties.
Lisa Schofield, Technology Consultant for PAEC, worked on the Tri-Consortia committee and helped evaluate the bids. “This really was a game changer for many of our districts who had limited options in the past. The Tri-Consortia bid introduced higher bandwidth options and lower prices for all districts. Even the districts that stayed with their current providers, saw a reduction in the cost of the services they were receiving,” Schofield said.
Three school districts took advantage of the Tri-Consortia E-rate contract in 2015. Jackson County and Washington County purchased both Wide Area Network (WAN) and Internet services, while Walton County purchased Internet services from the contract.
Jackson County signed a contract based on the Tri-Consortia’s RFP award with Internet Transport Solutions (ITS) in March of 2015. The special construction cost for Jackson County before E-rate discounts was $1.8 million. By July 1st of 2015, Jackson County was up and running on a new high speed broadband network after ITS installed over 60 miles of new in-ground fiber throughout the county. Jackson County Schools then received an 80% discount on the cost of installation, leaving the district with a balance of $360,000 to be paid over three years (per E-rate rules).