A BIIG Milestone: Over 350 of California’s Hardest-to-Reach K-12 Schools Now Have Broadband
As another school year closes and summertime gets underway, CENIC and its many collaborators in government, education, and the data communications industry have reached a significant milestone on the journey to universal Internet access: 356 of California’s most remote and underserved schools now have robust connectivity.
Thanks to special state funding and public-private partnerships, the nonprofit CENIC has been able to deploy new or improved broadband circuits to underserved schools throughout the state. Some of these schools are now among the best connected in California.
These schools join their peers with access to CENIC’s California Research and Education Network (CalREN), which now provides broadband Internet access to 100% of county offices of education, 87% of school districts (904), 83% (8,739) of schools, and over 5 million students.
Moreover, connected schools receive high-quality, reliable service. On May 8, 2018, California set a record when 570,745 students simultaneously took the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) test. Before the recent upgrades, some schools could only test 20 students at a time and had to spread test dates over the course of a month or more. Other schools were previously unable to perform online testing at all.
Additionally, students, teachers, and administrators are taking advantage of the increased capacity for day-to-day teaching and learning, as indicated by the doubling of K-12 traffic on the CENIC network in the last year (up 117%).
Culmination of Decades of Coordinated Effort
CENIC was established in 1997 by leading public and private universities in California to provide cost-effective, high-bandwidth computer networking for these institutions. For two decades, CENIC has operated CalREN, which now serves California’s public K-12 schools and libraries, community colleges, arts and cultural institutions, the UC and CSU systems, Stanford, Caltech, USC, the Naval Postgraduate School, and other organizations.
As early as 2000, the state of California recognized both the need for broadband connections for K-12 schools and the opportunity to leverage CalREN to create such connections. The state funded the Digital California Project, which established access points at county offices of education and large school districts to connect approximately 80% of schools and districts to CalREN. However, remote rural schools and schools in underserved urban areas were still lacking sufficient access.
Therefore more recently, to ensure broadband connections adequate for the new CAASPP testing, the Governor and California Legislature created the Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grant (BIIG) program. BIIG was allocated $26.7 million in 2014 and $50 million in 2015 — much of the funding to be used for the high one-time construction costs.
CENIC Provides Many Benefits, from Network Design to E-Rate Filings
Even as the BIIG funding became available, some K-12 school sites still faced constraints in technical knowledge and staff capacity. So CENIC took on additional roles to support a cohesive deployment approach for these schools.
CENIC’s roles expanded to include designing the connections from county and school district offices to individual school sites. CENIC network engineers bring their expertise to challenging configuration problems while also improving data transfer speeds. CENIC project managers develop plans and timelines, and oversee execution. In addition, CENIC staff collaborate with competitively selected commercial service providers on delivery of services.
CENIC also brings vast experience and expertise in E-Rate consortium applications, managing large-scale statewide applications for federal E-Rate and California Teleconnect Fund subsidies. These subsidies can result in 20% to 90% savings at the federal level and up to 50% savings on the remaining eligible costs at the state level.
Connection through CalREN provides schools with additional benefits:
- Availability of a 24/7/365 network operations center to address connectivity and performance issues;
- Access to a community of over 12,000 K-20 research and education institutions in California, as well as national and global institutions;
- Peering services for cloud and content services to many data-intensive sites frequented by educators, such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.
Finishing the Job
Getting these schools online has taken a lot of work but the benefits are tremendous. Approximately 70 schools with BIIG funding are in the process of getting connected, but some of these schools will take time due to their remoteness, the surrounding terrain, or obstacles along their routes. For such challenging sites, CENIC is committed to making steady progress on implementing their installations.
Meanwhile up to a thousand school sites remain un- or under-connected due to a combination of factors. In particular, for small rural schools, even if up-front construction costs are covered and the monthly service fees are deeply subsidized by state and federal dollars, they cannot afford the remaining, discounted costs. These schools will require more creative solutions before we can achieve broadband connectivity for every student in California.
Clearly, work remains to be done to extend access to some schools and to improve the quality of access for others. Required now is a renewed embrace of the challenge at hand. CENIC looks forward to continuing its successful collaborations with the California Department of Education, the California Legislature, the California Public Utility Commission, the Imperial Office of Education (the K-12 High Speed Network project), school sites, and commercial service providers to finish the job.