It appears that the rural-rural broadband gap applies to schools as well as the broader Internet marketplace. That seems the best explanation for two substantially different measurements of average school bandwidth in surveys conducted by NTCA- The Rural Broadband Association and EducationSuperHighway, an advocacy organization focused on bringing better broadband to the nation’s schools.
The NTCA yesterday released the results from a survey of its rural telecom service provider members which found that schools served by those companies, on average, purchase broadband connections delivering 65 Mbps downstream and 13 Mbps upstream. But EducationSuperHighway, which surveyed schools nationwide, found a median bandwidth of 33 Mbps.
School Broadband Measurements
These results might seem surprising, considering that broadband is generally available more broadly and at higher speeds in metro areas than in rural areas because it is less costly to deploy broadband in metro areas. That phenomenon is known as the rural-urban gap. But FCC researchers also have noted a rural-rural gap: Rural areas served by small independent telcos generally have better broadband availability and higher speeds than rural areas where the incumbent local carrier is one of the nation’s larger carriers such as AT&T or Verizon.
“The results of this survey are a clear indication that NTCA members and other small, rural providers understand the importance of these anchor institutions having high-quality broadband service,” said NTCA economist Rick Schadelbauer in a press release about the NTCA survey.
A variety of factors contribute to the rural-rural gap.
Small telcos say the larger telcos are more likely to invest in metro areas where they can see a bigger return – and that carriers with wireless operations are most interested in investing in that side of their business.
Larger telcos say it is easier for smaller telcos to obtain Universal Service funding to help cover some of the costs of deploying broadband – and the FCC is taking that assertion seriously in its plans to transition the Universal Service program into a Connect America Fund focused more tightly on broadband.
I couldn’t help thinking that it’s not a coincidence that the NTCA report was released just days before the FCC is set to vote on proposed reforms to the Universal Service e-rate program that pays some telecommunications costs for schools and libraries. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is advocating a plan that would direct funding toward Wi-Fi.
It would appear, though, that either side could use the NTCA data to further its point of view. Wheeler and his supporters could point to the NTCA research to argue that connectivity into the school is good enough and that connectivity within the school is what needs to be addressed. But Wheeler opponents could argue that the research shows the value of making decisions about how to spend money at the local level.