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Nearly nine out of 10 school districts meet the federal government’s minimum standard for internet connectivity – a significant increase from 2013, when only 30 percent met that level, according to a report released Tuesday by a California-based nonprofit organization.

The report was produced by EducationSuperHighway, a small nonprofit that works with schools to help them improve their choices about increasing high-speed internet access. In late 2015, Education SuperHighway received a $20 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the charitable group of the chief executive of Facebook and his wife, a pediatrician.

President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative, announced in 2013, had a goal of giving 99 percent of all students access to speedy internet by 2018. Today, that figure is 75 percent, but an estimated 11.6 million students in 19,000 schools still lack the minimum speed of 100 kbps per student (the goal set by the federal government), according to the new report. The report breaks down progress by state.

The schools that were least likely to meet the goal for speed were the most likely to report that the price of connections was holding them back, according to the report. Schools that did not meet the goal reported prices of about $7.81 per mbps, while schools that met it reported paying about $3.38 mbps and those that surpassed it were paying $1.33 mbps. In other words, those with the fastest internet connections reported they were getting the better deals.

Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, answered some question in an email interview about what the new report found.

There has been tremendous growth in modern internet connections in the nation’s schools. What do you believe is the motivating factor in this?

One of the great motivating factors in this trend is leaders at the federal and state level making school connectivity a priority. The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] modernized the E-rate program in 2014, paving the way for governors and other state leaders to step up to take meaningful action to upgrade schools. Last year 34 governors took action to upgrade schools, which led to 10.4 million more students that now have the minimum connectivity they need for digital learning.

88 percent of school districts and 75 percent of American students now have access to high-speed internet connections at school.

Do you think schools are using the new transparency provided by E-rate to negotiate better deals? Or do you think the savings being realized are mainly due to advancements in technology that have lowered the cost of internet connections?

There is certainly an element of natural market forces that are making broadband more affordable for schools, but our report shows that the cost of internet has declined 40% from 2015 to 2016 — far more than the 10% decline that would be expected. This is being driven by service providers taking advantage of improvements in technology to provide school districts with significantly more bandwidth for their budgets. At the same time, school districts are using price transparency to negotiate better deals with their providers. Affordability remains the number one barrier to school districts achieving the network speeds they need, so more work is required on the part of school districts and providers to upgrade schools.

As you noted in the report, rural areas remain underserved due to high costs. Do you think it’s realistic to expect these schools to get online?

Absolutely. The modernization of the E-rate program created new opportunities for mostly rural and small town areas to improve their fiber infrastructure, which enables the high speeds necessary for digital learning. When states step up to provide fiber matching funds, it significantly reduces the upfront one-time cost that a school district must pay to build fiber to its schools. To connect the remaining, mostly rural schools to high-speed fiber, it will require a collaborative effort between the state, the providers and school districts.

What does it mean to you when you see how much progress has been made since 2013? And what do you hope the next administration focuses on in regards to education technology?

It’s continually encouraging to see the progress made across the country in connecting America’s students. It means that students are getting the connectivity they need to take advantage of technology in the classroom and gaining access to the tools they need to succeed in the modern workforce. We hope the next administration recognizes how critically important it is to connect all students to high-speed broadband.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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