This week I switched from Time Warner to AT&T for residential Internet and cable. For the same cost, AT&T offered more channels and promised the same average broadband speed of “15 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up.” I was ready for a change anyway, because I’ve found that my average download speeds are 5 Mbps instead of the promised 15. (You can test yours easily and for free here.) I’m hoping AT&T will beat that.

Securing fast and reliable enough broadband is a moving target, not only at home but in public spaces. Government agencies at all levels are hard pressed to ensure adequate broadband capacity because demand is growing so quickly—much faster than for other infrastructure needs such as actual highways and bridges. Public schools are among the neediest institutions because of the significant uptick in online and tech-rich learning. If 50 percent of high school courses will truly be delivered online by 2019, as the authors of Disrupting Class predict and the numbers suggest, then the infrastructure requirements to accommodate that are monumental. Michael B. Horn and I write here that the spike in BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) policies also accelerate the demand for classroom connectivity, specifically Wi-Fi.

The question then arises of how much bandwidth is enough for schools? In 2008 the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recommended here that schools achieve the following broadband speeds:

External Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider At least 10 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2010-11
Internal Wide Area Network (WAN) connections among schools in the district At least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2010-11


In this 2012 update released a few weeks ago, SETDA called for the following increased minimums:

External Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider At least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2014-15
Internal Wide Area Network (WAN) connections among schools in the district At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2014-15


SETDA’s 2012 report makes clear that schools have a long way to go. It cites the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) 2010 survey of E-Rate funded schools as proof. More than half of respondents reported connecting at 3 Mbps or greater, but only 10 percent reported speeds of 100 Mbps or greater. Remember that 3 Mbps is significantly slower than my 15 up/2 down basic residential service plan. It’s slower than the FCC’s recommendation for any residential connection.

What can states do to move forward faster in providing high-speed connectivity to schools, even in this time of fiscal austerity? I continue to believe North Carolina offers a guiding light. In 2011 Kerry Herman and I wrote a case study for Innosight Institute titled The North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative, which described how North Carolina leaders creatively pulled together federal, state, post-secondary, and for-profit entities to connect almost every one of the 2,400 K-12 schools in the state to fiber-optic WANs and to connect 41 percent of districts to the powerful post-secondary NCREN network for external Internet access.

Myra Best and Joe Freddoso, two of the North Carolina Initiative’s leaders, recently offered this update to the case study: As of today, all 115 districts (up from 41 percent) have a minimum of 100 Mbps connection to NCREN for external Internet access. The goal is to grow to 10 Gbps per district in the next five to 10 years. The toughest part of reaching that goal is that roughly 64 districts will have to lease larger circuits from AT&T, CenturyLink and other third-party carriers for the last-mile connection to NCREN. Those leases present the biggest cost issue for hitting the 10 Gbps target.

North Carolina’s efforts to provide access continue to be a work in progress, as they are in every state. Nonetheless, I respect how North Carolina has a clear understanding of its current bandwidth situation, a team of for-profit, nonprofit, and government agencies working together to improve that situation, and a district-by-district strategy for the future. I also like how North Carolina has taken advantage of existing resources, such as NCREN and E-Rate, rather than petition the state for funds that would duplicate NCREN and E-Rate allocations and that likely don’t exist anyway.

North Carolina’s work makes me believe that SETDA’s recommendations are more achievable than some states may believe. Given the realities of today’s budgets, I expect that a solution like North Carolina’s that depends more on leadership and strategy than funding provides a much more welcomed template.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.