Tablets in the classroom. It is a visual symbol of modern K12 education. However, up until 2014, connectivity for those tablets and other devices in many schools was often spotty at best.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Mark Wheeler gave a speech that February to celebrate National Digital Learning Day. He shared an experience that he had witnessed in a middle school, “where the students told about how the network would crash if too many of them pushed ‘Enter’ simultaneously. They told of having to walk around the room holding their tablets up until they got a WiFi signal.”
Prior to summer 2014, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) had a limited definition for providing E-rate funds to schools: “A wireless Internet access service designed for portable electronic devices is eligible if used for educational purposes.” This meant that funds would only be authorized to procure wireless data services from cellular carriers.
Wheeler had witnessed firsthand how the narrow definition had an impact on students’ ability to use tablets and smartphones in the classrooms. Relying on wireless data from cellular carriers posed two main challenges:
Everything changed in July 2014, when the FCC adopted the E-rate Modernization Order, authorizing internal connections (WiFi technology) as a fundable type of infrastructure, and more importantly, setting a goal of $1 billion in funding for internal connections technology. The order also made basic maintenance and managed internal broadband services—more commonly described as managed WiFi—eligible for support.
Now, school and library administrators can determine whether they wish to acquire the hardware, such as routers, switches, wireless access points, internal cabling, racks, wireless controller systems, firewall services and uninterruptable power supply, as well as the software to support them, and then install and manage the system in-house. Or, they can seek the same type of performance via a managed WiFi service provider if they do not have the budget and staffing to support their own infrastructure.
The first step in planning for a successful application of internal connections funds is to determine whether a school district or library system has the capability to install and manage its own WiFi network, or whether they should go to a managed service.
The majority of school district and library system leaders do not have the IT support staff needed to take on installation and management. That is because the complexity and cybersecurity requirements have evolved exponentially in the past five years. School districts are now facing full-scale DDoS attacks and threats from individuals and organizations attempting to steal Personal Identifiable Information (PII) of their students. Additionally, schools that receive USAC funds and E-rate discounts must meet the requirements of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which Congress adopted in 2000 to protect against obscene or harmful content over the Internet.
In addition to security threats and federal compliance, school IT decision-makers also must contend with tremendous bandwidth demands that the transition to the Digital Classroom has produced. U.S. schools were expected to purchase 3.5 million tablets by the end of 2014, according to industry analysts, and worldwide, K-12 spending on tablets increased 60 percent from 2014 to 2013. The ever-increasing volume of devices and constant implementation of new applications for student learning requires WiFi systems that are designed to grow with this near vertical consumption curve. It also requires the ability to access performance metrics of the high-level network down to the individual API supporting a specific classroom.
The network complexity, cyber security requirements and constantly increasing bandwidth demands really do point the majority of school districts and library systems in the direction of seeking a trusted partner to assist in designing, installing and maintaining their WiFi system as a managed solution offering. The FCC anticipated this and set forth guidelines for budgetary planning over a five-year period and on a student-by-student basis.
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By going with a managed solutions provider for WiFi, school district and library systems can focus on curriculum development and supporting applications to meet educational needs of their digital students, rather than worrying about when the warranty runs out on their APIs or developing reports that provide them with performance metrics. They can focus on what they do best: finding creative ways to prepare their students to compete in the digital age, while their partners deliver a managed WiFi solution that facilitates these goals.