Solutions for the broadband affordability gap in Minnesota schools

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By Marc Johnson, East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative (ECMECC)

Recently, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband met to discuss the issue of broadband affordability. We still have a problem in our state with availability of quality, high-speed broadband — especially in the rural parts of the state. We also have a significant population that can’t afford the service available to them. Together, access and affordability of broadband may mark one of the greatest inequalities of the 21st century.

I was asked by MSBA’s Denise Dittrich — who is also a member of the Task Force — to speak to the affordability issue from a K-12 school perspective. As we start thinking about the 2017 legislative session and possible policy and funding recommendations, I wanted to provide a picture of the affordability gap that exists with broadband in Minnesota schools. Here’s a synopsis of what I presented.

According to data collected in 2015 by Education Superhighway (http://www.compareandconnectk12.org) 80 percent of Minnesota schools have the fiber connections needed to meet national bandwidth targets. Additionally, most K-12 schools in the state have access to the Internet bandwidth they need. They just need to pay for it. That is to say, for school districts in our state, this issue isn’t about access to bandwidth, it is all about how affordable it is. Following are three examples taken from Education Superhighway data obtained in 2015 from federal E-rate data and in consultation with members of the Minnesota Educational Technology Networks (http://www.metn.k12.mn.us).

  • The cost per Megabit (Mb) of Internet access for Anoka-Hennepin schools is $0.73. The district purchases 10Gb or 10,000Mb to serve their staff and nearly 38,000 students. The cost is $7,252 per month. That equates to $2.31 per student per year — or about 0.04 percent of the basic general education formula aid provided by the state.
  • In Braham, less than 50 miles north of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the cost per Mb is $11, which is still $2 below the state average. The Braham Area School District purchases 100Mb to serve their 839 students which equates to $16.16 per student per year — or about 0.2 percent of the formula aid.
  • In west-central Minnesota, the Herman-Norcross School District spends $58 per Mb of Internet access. They purchase 45Mb for their staff and 92 students at an average cost of $2,610 per month. The cost per student per year is $340.43 — or about 5.5 percent of their formula aid.

Folks, we have a problem here. The per student cost for anything in education, let alone a basic necessity like Internet access, should not be 146 times more in one district versus another. Yes, there are programs like E-rate at the federal level and Telecommunications Equity Aid from the state that help pay for some of the cost, but at the end of the day, districts like Herman-Norcross still use proportionally more of their limited funding to pay for basic Internet access than other districts. I struggle to find another example of a basic service in education that comes close to this level of inequity.

We know that there are many reasons for this. In my examples, all three of the districts purchase their Internet access through cooperatives, which tends to drive down costs by aggregating purchases and going through competitive bidding processes. However, in many parts of the state, there are only one, maybe two providers who are capable of providing the access that schools need and this diminishes the effects of a competitive bidding process. Geography plays a role as well. In areas where communities are long distances from each other and far from a regional center, costs are higher to deliver some services. That said, we don’t see this kind of wildly differing cost with services like electricity, phone service, educational supplies, curriculum or even food.

So, what can we do about this? I suggested the following possibilities to the Task Force.

  • Fully fund the state Telecommunications Equity Aid program. It would cost $7 million per year (an increase from $3.75 million per year to $10.75 million per year) to fully fund Internet access in Minnesota schools for the next five years or more. This program is intended to help equalize telecommunications costs for schools, but now covers only about 40 percent of the cost (after E-rate) leaving a large gap for the schools where costs are highest.
  • Continue to support the E-rate program which provided more than $47 million in funding to Minnesota schools in 2015.
  • Support increased competition among providers (or incentives). We know competition drives down prices.
  • Support economies of scale. While most Minnesota school districts buy Internet access as part of a cooperative, there are opportunities for the cooperatives to work together along with the state to find additional savings.
  • Support the Border to Border grant program and other rural broadband initiatives. While schools themselves can get the access they need, many of our students still cannot.

Moving forward, districts will need to purchase more bandwidth as the Internet continues to weave itself deeper into our everyday lives. A few simple changes to funding now will balance the inequity, but schools, cooperatives, providers and the state will need to continue to work together on economies of scale to close the affordability gap that currently exists. You can see the slide deck that I presented to the Task Force at: https://goo.gl/aqVevT

About mnmsba

The Minnesota School Boards Association, a leading advocate for public education, supports, promotes and strengthens the work of public school boards.
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