ConnectED: When Free Isn’t Free

What do President Obama’s senior advisors believe will be one of the biggest potential achievements of his second term? Hot-button issues such as immigration and health care seem like obvious candidates, but according to the Washington Post, broadband wireless for schools ranks right up there.

Announced in June, the White House’s ConnectED initiative aims to provide 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps service to 99 percent of students by 2018. Funding would come from the E-Rate program but could require a tax increase on mobile phone services, which is why ConnectED is now getting attention outside of just telecom and education circles. The White House’s press release helpfully notes that “this ambitious initiative does not require Congressional action,” but of course that doesn’t mean some members won’t exert pressure on the FCC and the White House.

Politics aside, the devil ultimately is in the details, and at least in its initial form, the ConnectED is painted in strokes so broad that it’s tough to estimate how much a school district could reasonably expect to pay. After all, it’s one thing to get broadband to school buildings and quite another to have the devices and support staff necessary to make use of it.

In that respect, ConnectED is like iPads, where it’s a mistake to overlook the total cost of ownership that comes with new education technologies. Indeed, as the ConnectED proposal notes, “Our teachers do not get enough training and support to integrate technology in their classroom and lessons.” So if ConnectED becomes reality, one thing to consider is which government will provide the funding for that training and support: The feds? Or the local entity that collects property taxes?

That’s not a minor issue because it’s tough enough for school districts to convince taxpayers to cough up more. So if E-Rate won’t provide everything that a district needs to take full advantage of ConnectED, then be prepared to educate taxpayers about why their levy needs to increase. Considering how often they grouse about iPads as being superfluous, ConnectED-related expenses – such as more IT help desk staff – could be a tough sell.

The ConnectED proposal says that “fewer [sic] than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs.” That’s noteworthy because a fatter pipe doesn’t mean just that everything will work faster. It also means that students and teachers will be able to do more things, and those things will require hardware—such as videoconferencing systems—and day-to-day support.

For the White House and school districts, the trick will be to avoid a problem that’s plagued telemedicine for years. Although rural clinics increasingly have access to broadband and telemedicine hardware, anecdotes abound about that gear collecting dust because there’s no funding to hire people with the IT skills to support those systems on a daily basis.