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Branstad cited for leadership in bringing broadband to classroom

Iowa still not as advanced on this front as other states

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Iowa is a leader when it comes to broadband access in the classroom, but falls short extending fiber networks to schools across the state, according to a report released Thursday from an Internet in schools advocacy group.

The 2015 State of the States report by Education Super Highway, a San Francisco-based non-profit, shows 87 percent of Iowa school districts meet the minimum goal of 100 kilobytes per second per student set by the Federal Communications Commission. Iowa ranks No. 16 on this front, above the national average of 77 percent.

“Any state that has over 85 percent of its school districts connected is doing a great job,” Evan Marwell, founder and chief executive, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “More importantly, Gov. (Terry) Branstad is a leader on this topic and by focusing on bringing fiber to those who need it, lowering costs, and working to putting Wi-Fi in all classrooms, we fully expect that Iowa will get to 100 percent connectivity in the next four years.”

While Iowa is meeting the minimum Internet target, the state ranks poorly on fiber connections to schools, wireless in the classroom and affordability of broadband.

Only 2 percent of Iowa school districts meet the $3 per megabyte per second Internet access affordability target, which tied for 39th in the nation.

The group says the $3 per megabit rate will allow schools to get the Internet access they need. If that goal is achieved, And, it said, 86,000 more Iowa students will have enough bandwidth for digital learning.

The biggest hurdles are access to fiber connection, affordability of broadband and insufficient school district budgets, the report stated.

It notes $39 million in E-rate funds are available to support wireless networks in Iowa. The funds come from fees on telecommunications bills.

“It’s the same challenge of getting that technology to the communities,” said David Daack, community adviser with Connect Iowa, a group working to expand broadband statewide. “The cost to make that happen. The commitment governors have shown to make that happen is one of the biggest drivers to overcoming the digital divide between rural and urban.”

The report credited Branstad for providing a 10 gigabits per second “backbone” and Internet access to all school districts through the Iowa Communications Network, which Branstad established in 1989.

Branstad is one of 38 governors who have committed to connecting students to digital learning and is one of 24 governors identified as a “leader” for taking action to upgrade schools.

In Cedar Rapids, the school district invested $2.6 million as part of a fiber network build-out with the city and Linn County, which removed the need to lease circuits. The infrastructure, which saves about $250,000 per year in leasing costs, should support the district’s broadband capacity needs for the next 20 years, said Lori Bruzek, the district’s director of technology.

The district is tackling a wireless upgrade across 33 sites to support more devices and a higher level of service, she said. The district only bears 25 percent of the $750,000 cost, thanks to the E-rate program, Bruzek said.

The district pays $35,000 to $45,000 per year for broadband service, which includes 1 gigabit each from the Iowa Communications Network and ImOn Communications, of which The Gazette is an investor.

“The demand is increasing every year,” Bruzek said. “We will probably see doubling again this year. That is pretty consistent.”

Nationally, since 2013, the number of students accessing the minimum Internet speed has increased from 4 million to 25 million, or from 30 percent to 77 percent of students, according to the Education Super Highway, which is backed by the Gates Foundation and Mark Zuckerberg’s Startup: Education.

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