Virginia School District Gives 49% of Students Broadband, Bill Would Take It Away

In 2016, the Appomattox County School District in Virginia used broadband in a unique way to close the “homework gap” for 49% of its students. But now this visionary deployment could be declared null & void by a Virginia state legislator.

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Appomattox County logoFCC changed its rules to allow schools to use eRate-funded broadband after school is over to provide home coverage. The School District built its own fiber network, installed Wi-Fi radios onto the network to reach un-served homes with free service, and also saves the county millions of dollars in leasing fees over five years. Surprisingly, few or no other school districts capitalize on the rule change, though some plan to do so this year.

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Brette Arbogast, Director of Technology for the District determined that the logic and economics makes sense. Students use state-of-the-art laptops and tablets running on highspeed network in the schools, but 49% either have no Internet access at home, or parents can’t afford whatever service there might be in the area.

Virginia state legislator Kathy Byron introduced a deceptively name bill that would stop the county’s efforts in its tracks. As the Roanoke Times states, “In the spirit of naming bills the exact opposite of what they would do, her so-called “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act” [original title] would actually make it harder to extend broadband to areas that don’t presently have it — or don’t have enough of it.” This bill, water down and bearing no title, corrupts the notion that communities can best determine and meet their broadband needs.

U.S. taxpayers fund the FCC’s eRate program that reimburses providers for up to 90% of the cost of building and operating an eligible school’s broadband network. ISPs, co-ops, or municipalities bid on the networks for school then request from eRate the appropriate percentage of the bid amount. Providers then bill the schools a leasing fee to ostensibly recover the percentage not reimbursed by eRate. The U.S. AND the local taxpayers pay for a resource that the taxpayers don’t own and only use it 25% of the time.

Arbogast did some research and found out the District could pay $150,000 to build its own infrastructure that eRate reimburses. ISPs would charge anywhere from $300,000 to over $1 million for the buildout. The Wi-Fi radios are a relatively inexpensive and provide service at no charge. Besides lower buildout costs, he calculated the county would save $75,000 – $85,000 annually in leasing fees for just one connection since the District owns the network, and the District has six connection.

Originally, allowing ISPs to lease fiber to schools was viewed as encouragement for ISP’s to complete last mile buildouts. But this is a thing of the past. Fiber infrastructure has decreased in cost. “Schools need to seek out ways to cut the on-going leasing of fiber in favor of buying fiber and completing buildouts,” says Arbogast. “Imagine how much money you can save by eliminating leased lit fiber.”

After 4 o’clock the network is either not needed at all or very little. By providing broadband via wireless the community is now able to benefit from what they have already paid for with their taxes. In fact, Appomattox’ approach addresses one barrier to broadband adoption, which is, constituents don’t see the need or the benefit. While facilitating students needing broadband for homework, parents and neighbors start contacting ISPs for unlimited services.

Arbogast feels strongly that “HB 2108HI reduces the opportunities of localities to provide homegrown utilities to neighbors. I cannot see any benefit or progress for taxpayers with this bill.” There are, in fact, over a dozen city- and county-owned networks that are great successes. Stop throwing out the babies with the bathwater!

 

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