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Online work has become a classroom staple for students around the country, but hundreds of thousands are still locked out because of inadequate internet connections.
Online work has become a classroom staple for students around the country, but hundreds of thousands are still locked out because of inadequate internet connections. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

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When students at Woodman School, on the western edge of Montana, are working on research projects in class, they don’t have the option to start their search with Google. They can’t access online encyclopedias. They basically can’t access online anything.

If teachers want kids to use online resources in class, they must take home a classroom set of laptops and download the information to each computer in preparation for the school day. The school’s internet capacity simply can’t handle many users at once.

Woodman School has 35 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. A county superintendent oversees the school but the building itself is staffed by five teachers, a secretary and a custodian. Its definition of what it means to be “rural” is beyond that which most Americans will ever come to know.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to learn that Woodman is part of the 6 percent of public school districts that still don’t meet federal connectivity benchmarks. These districts serve 6.5 million students nationwide.

“Our kids who live in the country are not getting the same educational opportunities as kids who are living in the city.”

“There’s inequity going on here,” said Erin Lipkind, superintendent of the county’s schools. “Our kids who live in the country are not getting the same educational opportunities as kids who are living in the city.”

Woodman School gets its internet through DSL service. The signal is transmitted through phone lines. That’s typically the slowest possible way to get an internet connection, followed by getting it through cable wires. Fiberoptic connections are generally the fastest. That’s what Woodman School would like to get, but it has been stymied by bureaucratic red tape.

Fiberoptic cables don’t currently run near the school. For Woodman to get them, an internet service provider would have to dig about 10 miles of trench to run the fiberoptic lines, an expensive proposition for the promise of just one small school contract. Imagine how many customers a company could get running 10 miles of fiber somewhere else. The entire length of San Francisco is just seven miles.

Related: Most students go to a school that meets federal standards for internet speed

Luckily for Woodman and schools like it, the federal government has a pot of money set aside to pay for projects like this. Since 2014, a primary goal of the E-rate program has been to ensure affordable access to high-speed broadband in the nation’s schools. And a “special construction” category helps schools pay for fiber projects upfront. The feds have even dedicated matching funds to boost their contribution when states chip in 10 percent of the project cost.

Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of EducationSuperHighway, which supports upgrading internet access in every public school, has been tracking applications for fiber projects. His nonprofit advocates fiber over any other form of internet connection because it gives schools access to an unlimited amount of bandwidth. The only limit is their budget. Since EducationSuperHighway formed in 2014, the number of schools lacking fiberoptic connections has dropped from 20,000 to about 2,000. But 80 percent of those remaining schools are in rural areas, where it costs the most to bring this connection.

And these projects seem to be coming under special scrutiny by the organization that administers E-rate for the Federal Communications Commission, the Universal Service Administrative Company. Marwell said districts are waiting for decisions about funding for fiber projects for an average of nine months – far longer than normal – and when the decisions do come, they are often denials.

“A typical E-rate project gets denied at a 4 percent rate,” Marwell said. “For these projects, it’s close to 30 percent.”

Woodman School submitted its proposal last May. At this point, the application is at a standstill. USAC wants more information from Century Link, the lone service provider willing to take on the project, and Century Link considers that information proprietary and doesn’t want to provide it, according to Jeff Crews, the technology consultant spearheading the fiber project for Woodman School.

Marwell said USAC has been asking some service providers and not others to fill out lengthy questionnaires about proposed projects, and he said some applications get denied because of small filing errors like forgetting to check a box. Sometimes the project cost is deemed too high, even though there are geographic barriers that make digging a trench justifiably more expensive.

An FCC spokesman said that Chairman Ajit Pai has directed USAC to make the processing of all E-rate applications more efficient.

But Marwell sees too much preoccupation with rooting out potential waste or abuse of the federal funds instead of making the priority that more schools get connected.

“Their focus is on not making a mistake rather than making sure kids have opportunities,” Marwell said.

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