For East Iowa schools, high-speed Internet about more than plugging in

Districts face different challenges getting students connected

Otto Mueller with Price Industrial Electric pulls cable through a conduit as he works with John Crawford to move fiber-o
Otto Mueller with Price Industrial Electric pulls cable through a conduit as he works with John Crawford to move fiber-optic line at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

When it comes to education, the Internet is the new black.

On July 1, the education reform package that the Iowa Department of Education has hailed as “historic” became law. That legislation includes broadening Iowa Learning Online, an Internet-based system that allows students to take classes that aren’t available in their home districts.

Even President Barack Obama is on the web-meets-classrooms bandwagon. In early June, he announced the ConnectED initiative, which aims to enable 99 percent of students to access high-speed wireless and broadband in their schools and libraries within the next five years.

“Kids are walking into schools and they’re electronic natives. They’re expecting to be able to do a lot more with Internet access than ever before,” said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. “To do this well, we need to have high-speed access universally. We know that we’re not quite there.”

Getting connected

Iowa’s school districts don’t all have to cross the same bridge in order to have high-speed Internet. The journey varies based on location, infrastructure and financial standing. Berger said a gap arose within the last decade when the state stopped providing districts with dollars expressly for technology upgrades. Once those dollars disappeared, administrators were forced to use existing general fund money or levy revenue to pursue that state of the art ideal.

Administrators in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school districts are both in the process of connecting their buildings to the Internet via fiber-optic networks. Despite being in different fiscal situations — Iowa City is among the fastest-growing districts in the state in terms of students, while Cedar Rapids notched the largest student loss in the state over the last five years — both school systems partnered with local entities in order to equip their facilities with adequate technology.

ConnectED’s goal is connection speeds of one gigabit per second, or 1Gbps, but no less than 100 megabits per second or 100Mbps. For comparison, technology company Akamai — in its fourth-quarter 2012 State of the Internet Report — found that the average connection speed in the United States was 7.4Mbps.

Having its own fiber-optic network, which is being completed this summer, will allow the Cedar Rapids Community School District access to greater bandwidth.

“In 2005-06, for example, we were running links that were 1 or 2 megabits to schools, and those are capacities that are less than what people have in their homes if they have broadband now,” said Lori Bruzek, the district’s technology director.

The urban district worked with Linn County and the city of Cedar Rapids on the network, which she estimated will have a price tag of between $2 million and $2.5 million for the district’s portion, “a cost less than we first anticipated,” Bruzek said.

Within the next calendar year, Iowa City Community School District Chief Technology Officer David Dude anticipates that the entire district will be connected on the fiber-optic network save for Hills Elementary School. Hills will use T-1 Internet lines and will likely never join the network due to the facility’s location, Dude said.

The option is ideal for the school district because it meets staff and students’ information needs without the monthly cost of having someone else provide the network, Dude said. The district works with the University of Iowa and the city governments where the districts’ buildings are located. When those entities decide to connect nearby buildings to their networks, the district negotiates to buy strands of fiber for the same use.

For other school systems, ones without major academic institutions in their backyards, getting high-speed Internet isn’t as simple. In fact, districts in rural areas with lower populations can struggle with local carriers not having the ability to even provide high-speed Internet, should administrators be able to afford and seek it.

“If you’re a commercial telephone company, there’s cost to you to install the fiber-optic network,” said Philip Groner, manager of business services for Iowa Communications Network, which provides Internet, phone and other technology access to public entities, including schools and helps facilitate Iowa Learning Online. “Like any business, you need to recover those costs. You recover those costs through the sales of services.”

The plan

The fact sheet for ConnectED is short on details of how the president will accomplish this goal, but the plan relies on having the Federal Communications Commission “modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program” as well as calling on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to actually deliver the connectivity.

E-Rate, a program under the schools and libraries division of the federal government’s Universal Service Administrative Company, provides discounts for schools and libraries based on location and percentage of students who demonstrate economic need. Voice mail, professional development training, hardware, software and wiring are ineligible for E-Rate discounts.

Both Dude and Bruzek said their districts have taken advantage of E-Rate when they can, sometimes through the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, which works with the Iowa Communications Network, but the restrictions have made widespread use difficult. For example, neither district used the discounts for constructing their fiber-optic networks.

When asked what additional assistance the federal government could’ve provided to help their districts connected their buildings with high-speed Internet access, Bruzek and Dude both had only one answer: more funding.

However the ConnectED plan ultimately functions, educators agree on the Internet’s increasing importance in the classroom.“It’s actually slowing (kids) down and impairing their learning to do traditional types of teaching,” Berger said. “We need to get caught up. We need to have new equipment, we need to be state-of-the-art ... All of that is going to lead to better learning.”

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