The Bandwidth Schools Have and the Bandwidth They Need
There's an old saying that one can never be rich enough. Whether or not this is true, I'll add here that if you are a school, you can never have enough broadband access. Fast, robust and reliable broadband  is absolutely critical, not just for on-site students and teachers at schools or university campuses, but for off-site faculty and students so they can fully and successfully participate in online learning experiences and in the more basic practices of the school (accessing information, communicating, etc.). The growing popularity of online learning tools, web-based rich content (such as video), interactive digital textbooks, e-books, online assessment and the increasing dependence on the Internet for student and teacher learning will continue to contribute to rapidly increasing flows of digital traffic demanding more and more bandwidth. (In this article, I talk primarily about fixed broadband, though obviously mobile broadband is another enormous need).
A reliable, fast and powerful Internet is no longer just a teaching and learning tool—it is not simply what schools use; it fact represents what schools are—and for several reasons.
- The concepts of “school,” “teaching” and “learning” are bleeding beyond time and place and are no longer confined to a university campus or a particular set of hours. Indeed, out-of-school access to broadband by students and teachers is increasingly seen as being as important as the face-to-face components to the overall quality of access and learning at any educational institution.
- Bandwidth considerations influence consumption and production of learning resources—bandwidth availability determines which online content, applications and functionality students and educators will be able to effectively purchase, design and/or use in the classroom and online (SEDTA, 2012).
- Bandwidth availability and capacity determine how students learn—whether in online, blended, and face-to-face initiatives, whether instruction is traditional and didactic or more student-centered and differentiated, and whether online or blended learning is truly differentiated through the use of various media.
- The “cloud” has become an administrative platform as schools increasingly use the private and public web-based services for curriculum hosting, file management, back up and data storage services.
- Reliable broadband is essential to educators who want to be able to make the most of the available online resources and opportunities for teacher professional development that are also personalized and differentiated.
- High-capacity bandwidth is critical to essential resource maintenance and protection--updating subscriptions; managing apps; assuring the content management systems, learning management systems and Student Information Systems all work together seamlessly; and fixing vulnerabilities in the network.
- Bandwidth is critical to the success of hardware initiatives that attempt to provide ubiquitous access to learning, such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and 1:1 laptop and tablet programs.
- Access to online tools and resources is linked to the development of students’ digital literacy skills.
- High-performing educational countries—Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Japan—also make high-capacity broadband available to schools, and in some cases (like South Korea) to households to allow students to capitalize on continuous online learning opportunities.
In short, bandwidth constraints threaten to undermine decades of investments and efforts in using technology to make schools more efficient in terms of operations and to allow students and teachers access to quality learning resources and experiences. The differential in broadband availability—between rural and urban schools and wealthy and poor school districts—threatens to perpetuate educational and digital inequities among rural and urban, rich and poor students, More fundamentally, unreliable and constrained bandwidth undermine teachers' trust in the Internet in particular—and technology in general— as a critical and valuable instructional tool.
But many American schools lack enough bandwidth to carry out with efficiency such critical technical operations, especially in the teaching and learning sphere. By some estimates only 39% of US school districts have adequate access to functioning technology and/or adequate broadband access (Rates are even lower in many international settings). In the past year I have developed technology plans for two US school districts, and was shocked to find across schools extraordinarily slow bandwidth that made accessing the most basic of online content all but impossible. In many classrooms I found routers that were used for home internet service and almost every school or campus I entered had several dead spots in terms of coverage that unfairly disadvantaged students who happened to have classes in those dead zones. This wasn’t the exception in classes and schools; this was the rule.
The lack of adequate access to both technology and broadband Internet access isn’t just problematic in terms of national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced testing. This lack of adequate access impedes districts from moving to digital textbooks (which are more engaging for students and allow for easier updating of content than print text), focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning, leveraging online learning opportunities for students and teachers, and carrying out the most basic day-to-day learning activities. Students, who should be engaged by technology, lose interest as they wait minutes for a website to load and teachers abandon the use of technology because they cannot count on either machines working or a reliable Internet signal. Additionally, many schools suffer from not enough bandwidth to district office or school; inadequate internal networking speed / hardware; low-quality switches, routers and boosters; old hardware (like servers) and wiring; and misconfigured software, firewalls, or content filters—all of which impede the daily operations of schools.
How much bandwidth is enough…and for what activities?
So how much bandwidth do schools need? There is no exact determination, but the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)  offers some recommendations, outlined in Figure 1:
The amount of bandwidth needed is obviously driven by the types of networked activities in which the user is engaged. Below are three brief activities.
1. Downloading content
Traditionally, one of the most basic Internet-connected activities in which students and teachers engage is downloading information from webpages (This can include text, presentation files, video, music or books) and connection speeds greatly impact the user experience when downloading content. Assuming no other traffic or users, downloading a 1 MB book at 200 Kbps will take 40 seconds and a 6 GB video could take 2 hours.
Figure 2 summarizes SEDTA recommended download speeds for teaching and learning-related activities:
2. Online professional development for teachers
US teachers are increasingly participating in online learning as part of their continual professional development requirements. Thus, teachers (at school and at home) need robust and reliable bandwidth so they can have access to online learning opportunities, online content, video and multimedia learning tools, and access to a community of peers. A “killer app” for teacher online learning is streaming video, which allows teachers to see models of what they should be doing, but which is extremely broadband-intensive. As an example, Internet streaming of a movie requires minimum bandwidth of 1.5 MBps to play uninterrupted video. A network with at least 3 MBps or higher available bandwidth will provide the best video and audio quality during playback for standard definition content and 5 MBps for high-definition content.
3. Online testing
In spring 2015, millions of US students will take either the Smarter Balanced or PARCC assessment. The amount of bandwidth capacity will be determined by whether school districts choose to cache or not cache these state assessments. Caching involves pre-downloading as much of the encrypted test content prior to testing as possible, staging it on a computer (or multiple computers) in a district network location(s), and distributing it to student test-taking computers from the caching server (PARCC, 2014). This helps to avoid potential bottlenecks from testing traffic due to slower network switches, a shared Internet connection, or any other constraint on large-scale assessment traffic.
Here’s a quick look at bandwidth requirements for PARCC which is the assessment that my state, Massachusetts, uses.
Schools or districts who will cache the test will need to plan on minimum bandwidth capacity equivalent to 5 kbps per simultaneous test-taker to implement proctor caching.
Schools that will have students connecting directly to the Internet during test administration will need at least 50 kilobits per second (kbps) of available bandwidth for each simultaneous test-taker. The fewer students that are testing at the same time, the lower the bandwidth demand will be.
Because of bandwidth constraints, what happens in schools or districts when simultaneous wide-scale testing interim testing (say, MAP testing) occurs is that IT departments will often disable access to other important web-based programs, for example, learning management systems or important websites like SchoolTube or Khan Academy as a Quality of Service procedure to compensate for inadequate bandwidth. Since so many of the learning tools and digital resources students use are cloud-based, this negatively impacts student learning.
1. Not all schools will need the same bandwidth
One way to determine a school’s bandwidth needs is to base requirements on the projected amount of technology the school will have, the number of teachers who will be involved in online learning, and the projected number of students who will be accessing the Internet as art of online and blended learning. For example, let’s say a certain area/district has an elementary school with 800 students, a middle school of 800-1500 students and a high school of 1500 students. The current Wide Area Network (WAN) bandwidth design for this district would be a primary school connected to the district WAN at 100 Mbps, middle school connected to the district WAN at 500 Mbps and high schools connected at 1 Gbps (gigabit=1000 mb) (SEDTA, 2012).
2. Peak demand on a per user basis
Schools (and other learning institutions) can determine bandwidth to meet maximum simultaneous (“peak”) demand on a per user basis. This will have to be regularly monitored so that adjustments can be made in a timely way. For example, if a digital learning platform is relying heavily on video that can be delivered to a student device, schools can approximate the maximum percentage of its students who would be accessing that video content at a certain point (for example, half of a district’s 1000 teachers accessing video at a certain time on a certain day), multiplied by the minimum bandwidth needed to stream the video (756 Kbps). So, for example, for half of 1000 teachers in a district multiplied by the minimum bandwidth, the formula would be:
1000 * 50% * 756 Kbps = 378 MBps [or, approximately 500 Mbps (megabits per second)] (SEDTA, 2012)
What’s next for schools?
The good news is that there is increasing attention on the need for greater bandwidth in US schools. If politicians let it, there is much that the federal government can do to spur greater broadband access—it can free up more broadband spectrum thus reducing the cost of wireless and wire line services; spur competition between broadband providers to promote equipment and network upgrades in areas that often lack more than one broadband provider; and attempt to foster competition between wireless and wire line providers to enhance infrastructure upgrades.
In keeping with this, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Modernization Order (adopted in July 2014) is attempting to modernize and streamline the schools and libraries E-rate program and expanding funding for Wi-Fi networks in elementary and secondary schools and libraries. As part of this effort, the FCC is seeking public comments to identify the gaps between schools’ and libraries’ current connectivity and the specific connectivity targets the FCC has adopted in this order. Further, the federal ConnectED initiative (which, among other goals, aims to connect 99% of US schools to next generation broadband and high-speed Internet high-speed wireless networks) should address issues of broadband capacity, it does little to help US school districts in the immediate term. These issues are ultimately grounded in policy, budgets and voter understanding of the importance of technology in schools.
These efforts notwithstanding, however, the US, vis-à-vis other nations, suffers from three weaknesses in terms of ensuring affordable, fast, quality broadband access for all teachers and students. The first is a policy issue. Unlike many nations, it has no national broadband policy (though it has a 2010 broadband plan) that can equalize broadband access across states, districts and schools. Even if such a policy did exist, its implementation would be complicated by our federal and decentralized system, where states and districts have greater educational authority than the federal government.
The second issue is legal or regulatory. Nineteen US states limit municipalities from building or expanding high-speed Internet service networks (Wyatt, 2014), so high speed broadband access within a state is often varies by county. Where this impact is really felt is in students' homes where accessing broadband may be difficult. Among other impacts, this neuters the benefits of 1:1 programs that allow students to take their laptop or tablet home.
The third issues is budgetary. Many school districts do not have technology budgets (or even specific line items in school district budgets), face huge operating shortfalls and thus must rely on budget overrides. For many voters, educational technology may be considered frivolous or tangential, versus integral to learning. Unfortunately for them, the burden of proof and reaching out to these voters still rests with school districts.
Federal Communications Commission (2014). Summary of the E-Rate modernization Order. Retrieved from http://www.fcc.gov/page/summary-e-rate-modernization-order
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (2014, May). Technology Guidelines for PARCC Assessments: Version 4.2. Retrieved from http://www.parcconline.org/technology
State Educational Technology Directors Association (2012, May). The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs. Retrieved from http://www.setda.org.
Wyatt, E. (2014, November 9). Communities fight state laws that can divide broadband access. New York Times. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/kk58g9c
 Speed vs. Capacity: A 1 MBps connection is faster than a 1 Kbps connection. This means that the former has greater capacity to carry data than the latter. A 1 kbps connection can deliver a maximum of 1000 bits of information to a computer from the Internet in a second. A 1 Mbps connection can deliver 1000 KB in a second. Though the bits are moving at the same speed, one connection delivers more content in the same amount of time, so it feels faster to the user. This is bandwidth.
 SEDTA is an organization of state education agency leaders that supports the use of technology for teaching, learning, and school operations.
 Bits/Bytes: Bits and bytes are both units of digital information. A bit is the basic element. A byte is equal to eight bits. The terms kilobytes (KB), megabyte (MB) and gigabyte (GB) are used to indicate the size of a file or program. The term kilobit (Kb), megabit (Mb) and gigabit (Gb)—and their notations (upper and lower case)—are used to convey the rate at which data are transferred over a network—that is, megabits per second or MBps.
- Kilobit per second (Kbps)= 1000 bits per second
- Megabit bit per second (Mbps)= 1000 Kbps
- Gigabit per second (Gbps)= 1000 Mbps
 Many schools (say, in Chile, US, Europe) operate a hub and spoke singular network where all the school’s applications and Internet are housed at a district data center (hub). From there, the data center connects to each individual school via the Wide Area Network (WAN). Because all of the spoke connections come into the WAN connection at the data center, that particular connection must have the highest throughput (the fastest amount of speed under ideal circumstances) and schools should look at the over-subscription rate they can tolerate on that data center WAN connection. To do this, however, they will need help determining the over subscription rates they can tolerate by getting access to network reports that show average and peak utilization on WAN circuits. This over subscription rate will influence end user experience with the application or content.