Left: Vardaman High School Junior C.J. Weddle, center, hopes to go to a four-year college, but worries that not being able to do online research in school will hold her back. Right: "The astronomical fees we were paying to get the worst Internet service you could possibly find became a problem," says one Mississippi Superintendent. Photos by Swikar Patel/Education Week.

The threat of a change in federal regulations helped the rural school district of Calhoun County, Mississippi, cut its internet bill in half.

And for half the money, the school system got more than 300 times the bandwidth, according to a new report from Education Week.

In recent years, the Calhoun County district has paid $1,325 per school for 3 megabits a second of bandwidth. Entire schools were sharing an internet connection that didn’t even run as fast as an ordinary smart phone.

Then the Federal Communications Commission, as part of a revamp of its internet funding program for schools called E-rate, signaled that it might allow schools to build their own fiber networks and ditch commercial providers. It’s called “self-provisioning,” in the parlance of broadband policy wonks.

After the Calhoun County school district announced it would be accepting bids to build its own network, the commercial providers changed their service, offering fiber connections for much less than the old rate for slow copper wires.

The internet service providers said the threat of competition had nothing to do with its quick negotiation of new terms for the school system. The superintendent thinks otherwise.

This is one story from a thorough and detailed report published by Education Week on the state of internet connections at some of the nation’s rural schools. The report, “Reversing a Raw Deal,” takes a deep look at the FCC’s E-Rate program. The program, which began with helping school districts with telephone connectivity, has moved into the digital age in recent years.

The stakes are high for rural communities, the report says:

“The challenge for rural America is the future,” said Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO. “If we don’t get affordable fiber out to those communities, they’re going to get left behind.”

Geography, bad policy, and a severe shortage of technical expertise within schools all contribute to the problem. So do the business practices of telecoms: AT&T and Verizon have been accused in lawsuits and other legal actions of bilking the system of millions of dollars, while many smaller companies have taken advantage of local monopolies and generous federal subsidies.

The Education Week report has provocative headings: “The Slowest Internet in Mississippi” and “They Rake Us over the Coals” (a school technology officer’s reference to the pricing practices of its internet service providers).

Throughout the three-part report, there’s information on the emerging applications of broadband in schools, and the frustrating attempts of some rural schools to keep current. Institutions that once did fine on a DSL-speed connection are struggling to participate in the rapid movement of educational resources from print to digital formats. Standardized tests, homework assignments, attendance reports, lessons — all of these materials and functions have moved online and demand more ability to move data. Students at schools that lack bandwidth are getting left behind, according to the report.

To enjoy the report, you’ll need a bit of bandwidth yourself. The first chapter alone is about 3,300 words. There are plenty of photos. And there are even a few gifs – the short photo-like video clips that run over and over.

Usually, I find gifs annoying. But the series uses them well and with journalistic purpose. One is a clip of a school administrator waiting for her computer to finish a task via the internet. As she waits, she waves her hand in a circle repeatedly. Another shows a class waiting for a video to load, with an infinite circling “loading” animation.

While the worst connectivity problems many Americans face is a little stutter in their video entertainment, rural students wait for educational opportunity. That’s far more than a simple annoyance, as the report makes abundantly clear.

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