Why Is School Wifi So Bad Is Inadequate Internet Hindering American Schools? For years, the United States has grappled with slower internet speeds compared to other developed nations. This issue has also affected schools, although there has been noticeable progress in recent years. In 2012, a staggering 70% of schools lacked internet connections capable of supporting basic administrative and instructional needs (100 KBPS per person). However, today, only a mere 1.6% of school districts fail to meet this minimal requirement.
Despite this progress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is contemplating changes to the E-Rate program, which subsidizes internet access in schools across the nation. The proposed changes could impose spending caps and potentially reduce funding for schools. This threatens the gains made and creates additional obstacles for the remaining school districts lacking sufficient internet connectivity.
Determining Adequate Speeds
The speed of internet connections in schools is measured in bandwidth (kilobytes per second) per student, considering simultaneous usage by all students in a school. The table below outlines recommended download speeds for various activities, from online assessments requiring only 64 KBPS per student to activities like streaming online video, which can demand over 1,000 KBPS per student. In 2014, the FCC set the goal for school internet speeds at 100 KBPS per person. The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA) suggests a minimum of 250 KBPS per student for online learning models like flipped classrooms or blended learning, although this recommendation may be conservative. School districts with internet connections of at least 250 KBPS per student should be able to support virtually all school administrative or instructional needs.
Table 1: Recommended speeds for online activities:
- Online multiple-choice assessments: 64 KBPS per student
- FCC 2016 Goal: 100 KBPS per person
- Online learning: 250 KBPS per student
- Email and Web Browsing: 500 KBPS per student
- Streaming digital video (Netflix): 500-1,500 KBPS per student
- Download 1 MB digital book in 5.3 seconds: 1,500 KBPS per student
- HD-quality Video Streaming: 4,000 KBPS per student
- Skype Group-Video Session, 7+ people: 8,000 KBPS per student
- Download 6,144 MB movie in 8 minutes: 100,000 KBPS per student
Source: Adapted from Fox, Waters, Fletcher, and Levin, 2012.
How E-Rate Operates
The E-Rate program subsidizes the costs of telecommunications, telecommunications services, internet access, internal connections, managed internal broadband services, and basic maintenance of internal connections for schools and libraries. Each year, the FCC allocates nearly $4 billion to schools and libraries. To receive these funds, schools must apply and report their current upload and download speeds. E-Rate covers between 20% to 90% of a school district’s expenses related to internet access. More funding is allocated to school districts with larger populations of impoverished and rural students.
EducationSuperHighway (ESH), a nonprofit organization, offers technical support to school districts seeking to upgrade their internet access. ESH uses publicly available data from E-Rate and publishes information about bandwidth availability in school districts nationwide. School leaders typically report speeds provided by internet service providers in their E-Rate applications, which can differ from actual speeds. ESH validates these reported values through speed tests conducted on school internet connections. The data encompass internet speeds from approximately 91% of traditional public school districts. School districts that do not apply for E-Rate or take ESH’s speed test are not included in this dataset. The data are combined with school demographic information, student poverty data, and school spending from 2017, the most recent year available.
Does E-Rate Benefit Students?
Research indicates that the relationship between internet communication technologies and student achievement is weak. While gaining access to high-speed internet at home was associated with a small but significant decrease in academic outcomes, efforts to implement computer-aided instruction in schools showed no association with student test scores. Evaluations of the E-Rate program itself found no significant effects on student achievement. Slow internet speeds may not be harming student outcomes. However, schools require adequate internet access for basic administrative purposes, online testing, instructional support, and communication with parents.
Disparities in Internet Speeds
Internet connection speeds in schools exhibit significant variance. The distribution of internet speeds has an extreme right skew, with an average district having 1,484 KBPS per student and a median of 654 KBPS per student. About 5% of school districts possess very fast internet speeds exceeding 5,000 KBPS per student, capable of supporting any internet-dependent technology. Conversely, approximately 15% of school districts fall below the recommended 250 KBPS per student threshold needed for online learning. This includes hundreds of districts with connections barely suitable for basic email use, and 33 school districts (about one-third of a percent) lack internet speeds adequate for online multiple-choice assessments.
The map below illustrates average school internet speeds by county, with lighter greens indicating slower speeds per student and darker blues indicating faster connections. The map highlights significant disparities in school internet speeds, particularly across states and urban vs. rural areas. Appalachia exhibits notably low internet speeds, while states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and North Dakota, with many rural school districts, boast above-average internet speeds. These variations could be attributed to proximity to internet backbone infrastructure, state policies supporting school internet technology, and differences in the cost of internet access.
Figure 1: Average KBPS per student by county
Interestingly, rural school districts generally have faster internet speeds than their urban counterparts. Eighteen percent of urban school districts report average internet speeds below 250 KBPS per student. These findings should be interpreted cautiously due to potential selection bias. School districts absent from the dataset do not receive E-Rate funds and are predominantly in rural areas. These unobserved school districts likely have slower average internet speeds due to their lack of E-Rate funding.
Furthermore, school districts with higher percentages of at-risk students and fewer resources tend to have slower internet connections. Internet speeds appear to correlate negatively with the number of impoverished students in a school district. About 29% of school districts with the highest poverty rates lack average internet connections exceeding 250 KBPS per student. Conversely, there is a positive correlation between per-student expenditures and internet speed. Only 4% more school districts in the top quintile of per-student spending have average internet speeds exceeding those in the bottom quintile. The racial and ethnic composition of a school district also influences internet speeds. School districts with fewer black students tend to have faster internet speeds, while those with a higher percentage of white students report higher average internet speeds.
The Future of E-Rate
American internet speeds are likely to continue lagging behind those of other countries. Issues such as limited competition and investment in the last mile of infrastructure remain systematic challenges that E-Rate may not fully address. Policymakers should strive to achieve two main objectives: safeguarding the significant improvements in school internet speeds made over the past five years and protecting the success of E-Rate. They should target the few remaining districts with very slow internet connections.
The proposal to cap E-Rate spending is in its early stages, with insufficient information to determine if it would jeopardize current progress. The original purpose of E-Rate was to ensure schools’ access through discounts and grants, not