librarySchools and libraries nationwide should be able to get gigabit connectivity to their service provider’s central office for an average of $750 per gigabit per month, said Evan Maxwell, CEO of Education SuperHighway, at an FCC workshop yesterday about E-rate modernization. The E-rate program is part of the Universal Service program, which covers some of the costs of broadband connectivity for schools and libraries.

The target speed for connectivity from the central office to the Internet should be three dollars per megabit per month – a substantial decrease from the average $22 paid today, Maxwell said.

Education SuperHighway is a research and advocacy group that aims to improve broadband connectivity to the nation’s schools. Maxwell based his comment on research conducted by Education SuperHighway, which has been collecting cost and speed data from schools nationwide.

“We know these prices are possible,” Maxwell said, noting that the top half of schools pay an average of just under $600 per gigabit per month for local connectivity.

“Every school with over 100 kids should get fiber,” added Maxwell.

He added, however, that the nation will have to subsidize deployment where deployment would not otherwise be commercially feasible.

Successful strategies
Also participating in the workshop were state-level and municipality-level technology and IT directors supporting schools and libraries, who shared their experiences in obtaining faster and/or less costly broadband connectivity.

One key theme that arose was the impact of competition on price levels.

Georgia Public Library Service canceled a contract with the incumbent carrier and put 63 separate systems out for bid. Although it was “painful” to administer, Georgia Public Library Service Director of IT Emily Almond said the net result was that the organization was able to get 28 times the bandwidth for half the price.

Schools and universities in Maine also coordinated the broadband bidding process, allowing service providers to bid on serving the whole state or part of it. The net result was that the incumbent carrier got 92% of the business, with the remaining 8% split across two other service providers. Through that process, the schools were able to get the incumbent to improve service, observed Jeff Letourneau, executive director of NetworkMaine.

“We got them to invest in new technology,” he said. ATM connections were replaced with Carrier Ethernet, he noted.

NetworkMaine operates a research and education fiber network throughout a large part of the state and leases capacity on that network to commercial carriers. It’s an open access network and Letourneau said that will benefit schools and libraries in the future because they won’t be tied to a specific service provider.

Strength in numbers
Another key theme to emerge from the workshop was the importance of aggregating demand.

In North Carolina, 98% of schools are now served over dedicated fiber, noted Joe Freddoso, president and CEO of North Carolina’s open access fiber network MCNC. The other 2% have existing contracts in place but will be upgraded after those contracts expire.

Freddoso attributed this achievement in large part to the fact that the network connects rural healthcare locations as well as schools and other anchor institutions. By aggregating demand from all of those parties, it was possible to justify the investment to connect specific communities.

Freddoso also advocated the involvement of wireless companies looking for cellsite connectivity. Rural areas “will be lucky to get [broadband] infrastructure once,” said Freddoso. “If you keep funding it in silos you’re never going to get there.”