Some schools still waiting for Internet connection

Some schools still waiting for Internet connection

(Calif.) A key legislative panel left unresolved Tuesday the question of how to get Internet service to a handful of California schools located in areas so remote that there are no providers and they cannot be connected without incurring potentially staggering costs.

Gov. Jerry Brown has set aside $100 million in his proposed 2015-16 budget to address the issue but an Assembly subcommittee on education funding wants more specific information about what will work for these schools and how much it will cost before signing off on the spending plan.

“What’s missing here for me is what [the schools’] potential budgets [for Internet connectivity] are so we can understand if this is really an appropriate use of their spending,” said Assemblyman and panel member Philip Ting, D-San Francisco.

The discussion comes even as schools are in the midst of the first official administration of new computer-based assessments aligned to the Common Core. As of Tuesday, according to the California Department of Education, nearly 2.2 million students of the total 3.2 million to be tested have at least begun one of the new math or English language assessments.

These assessments – also being rolled out in nearly half of all states – have led both federal and state leaders to push for funding to help schools pay for the infrastructure they need to test multiple students efficiently and effectively.

Some $27 million awarded to schools in 2014, in the form of Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grants helped whittle down the list of sites needing what is known as “last mile” connectivity – fiber optic cable connecting the school to a local district or county office of education, which in turn is linked to the Internet via a system operated by the nonprofit Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, or CENIC.

But upgrading the remaining 47 school sites – six to nine of which have no Internet at all – has proven problematic.

A recent bid – not accepted by education officials – by a provider to bring Internet to one of the remote school sites with only five test-eligible students was $10 million. Those types of costs arise due to the need to lay fiber optic cable over huge swaths of rugged and uninhabited land areas in the state’s northern most reaches, as well as in sparsely populated counties in the south east.

According to analysts from the CDE and the governor’s Department of
Finance, there are the “wireless” options of satellite and microwave but issues with these technologies could render them unworkable. Connection speeds are slower, maintenance costs are higher and they have a lifespan of just five to seven years, representatives said.

There were no estimates provided to show how much either of those options might cost a particular school.

“The 47 school sites that remain are some of the most difficult to connect, often because of geographical barriers or just not having businesses with an interest in connecting those areas,” CDE spokeswoman Monique Ramos told committee members. “We are working on trying to find solution for those districts.”

In the meantime, officials are weighing alternatives for making sure all students take the new assessments, whether they must be bussed to a central location such as a county office of education or continue to take paper and pencil tests.

At schools that have an Internet connection but with speeds too slow to handle all needs, administrators must test students in small groups and reduce system overload by limiting other online activities while testing takes place.

According to the state’s K-12 High Speed Network, which facilitates school connectivity and the financial transactions needed to secure it, there are still great infrastructure needs within school sites that also call for additional funding.

A recent assessment of 500 randomly selected California schools showed that 27 percent of them still do not have adequate infrastructure on the inside of their buildings: Things like wires to individual classrooms, wireless access points or even enough computers.

The survey also found that there is a significant lack of technical expertise at most school sites that inhibits progress and offers no teacher support during the assessment periods.