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Connecting Cleveland

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November 13, 2013 12:42 pm

Bob Wise

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the City Club of Cleveland as part of the series, “Broadband: Understanding the Fiber of Our Region.” During the event, I learned how Cleveland, working with the nonprofit One Community, used thousands of miles of new fiber and significant increases in broadband and wireless internet speeds to boost internet connection speeds in Cleveland’s schools. In the rest of the nation, however, schools and libraries continue to battle internet connections that are slow at best and unavailable the rest of the time.

For the first time in nearly twenty years, the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) is positioned to take major steps to modernize the program that connects schools and libraries to twenty-first-century technology through high-speed broadband internet. The E-rate program, developed in 1996, provides thousands of schools and libraries with discounted internet and phone access.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has been able to use its 86 percent E-rate discount, along with a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, to build one of the best digital infrastructures in the nation. While the levels of and demands for technology have changed drastically since 1996, the connectivity—or the ability to access the internet—in schools and libraries has not kept pace. In the northeastern Ohio schools region, more than half (54 percent) of high schools are connected at speeds that are less than 1 gigabit, and far too many schools (25 percent) are connected at speeds of less than 100 MB. That can mean the difference between being able to download a video file in ten seconds or ten minutes.

According to the FCC, half of the nation’s schools and libraries that apply for E-rate discounts have slower connection speeds than the average American home, and only 10 percent of those funded by E-rate have the broadband capacity that is necessary for high-quality digital learning. After E-rate’s inception in 1996, the country took a giant leap forward by providing a majority of schools with basic internet service that enabled a handful of teachers, and, in some cases, a stationary computer lab, to connect to the internet. Today, thousands of students, teachers, and school staff members routinely need to access the internet on a multitude of devices.

In schools today, using the internet no longer means occasional email and library research; accessing cloud-based resources, relying on wireless security systems, providing online teacher training, and assessing students online now make greater broadband connectivity an educational necessity. Many school districts, such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, are seeing major increases in student achievement and graduation rates as a result. Schools across northeastern Ohio, such as New Tech West High School in Cleveland, can and will achieve much higher student learning gains with improved internet access. High-speed internet connectivity can serve as a great equalizer in ensuring all students have access to the knowledge, information, and tools that will prepare them to graduate from high school ready for college and a career.

The Alliance recently submitted names and comments from over 1,000 people to the FCC supporting the modernization of the E-Rate program. Having been granted congressional authority to administer and review the E-rate program, the FCC can make changes without going through a laborious legislative process, making the next few months a critical time for increasing educational connectivity. By next school year, the FCC can put in place a system that significantly upgrades high-speed broadband access in the nation’s schools and libraries.

The program needs to be simplified, modernized, and expanded to meet the needs of today’s classrooms. The FCC’s decision on the E-rate program will shape the future of learning for schools in desperate need of improved connectivity, both in northeastern Ohio and around the United States. There is a critical need to speed up learning in this country, and that means there is a critical need to speed up the internet connections.

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Bob Wise is the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and the former governor of West Virginia.


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