More Illinois Schools Have Access To High-Speed Internet, But Some Still Suffer Without It

By Lee V. Gaines

Access to high-speed internet stops about seven miles east of both Nippersink School District 2 and Richmond-Burton Community High School District 157, according to Tom Lind. He’s the superintendent of both districts, located near the border of Wisconsin —  about 70 miles northwest of Chicago.

Lind said the lack of access to reliable, fast internet is a big problem for educators and students because 60 percent of learning in those classrooms now takes place online. The joint campus serves roughly 2,000 students who use 3,000 devices, including Chromebooks and other laptops, on a daily basis, Lind said.

The biggest obstacle preventing reliable, speedy internet service, he explained, is the absence of fiber optic cable. Fiber runs underground and offers much more bandwidth with less interruption than cable or satellite internet service — sometimes at a lower cost. According to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, fiber is the “only available technology that can sufficiently scale to meet most school’s projected bandwidth needs.”

The Nippersink and Richmond-Burton districts are among an estimated 78 across the state that lack fiber connections, according to EducationSuperHighway. The group also estimates that roughly 400,000 Illinois students don’t have enough bandwidth to support digital learning in the classroom. The nonprofit is funded by groups like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as private business leaders, to promote increased access to high-speed internet in classrooms. It partnered with the Illinois State Board of Education in May 2016 in an effort to increase access to high-speed internet in classrooms across the state.

The good news: Access to high-speed internet in schools is increasing at a dramatic pace in Illinois, according to EducationSuperHighway.

Jeff Kang is a state engagement manager for the group. Kang said he’s worked with Illinois politicians, state officials and schools districts over the last couple years to help more students get access to fast and reliable internet service in the classroom.

For learning purposes, a high-speed connection is defined as 100 kilobits per second, a level of bandwidth that can support teachers and students using the internet for web browsing and online testing. The Federal Communications Commission recommended all districts provide 100 kbps per student by the 2014-15 school year.

But that 100 kbps benchmark is just a baseline, Kang said. That level of bandwidth speeds provides the bare minimum of what can be done using the internet in the classroom. To provide a media-rich environment that includes video streaming, collaboration, remote instruction and online educational gaming, schools should be aiming for 1 megabit per second (mbps) per student, according to the nonprofit.

Approximately 96 percent of Illinois districts provide internet at speeds of 110 kbps per student, according to EducationSuperHighway, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Kang said that improvement is due in part to availability of data detailing the connection speeds, quality and cost of internet service at schools across the state. He said the data showed where improvement was needed, and revealed whether or not districts were getting a competitive rate from their internet service providers. The other reason he said connection quality and speed improved in classrooms is due to a federal rebate program for districts that wanted to install upgrades to their service. Kang said improvements were also spurred along by a commitment to the issue from a broad array of Illinois state politicians that includes individuals from both sides of the political aisle, as well as local leaders working to change access to internet in their own schools.

“This is very bipartisan, and it was very easy for everybody to get moving on this,” Kang said.

In the state’s latest budget, Illinois lawmakers set aside about $17 million in matching funds to cover the costs of connectivity upgrades. ISBE will post a request for proposals sometime in the coming month, Kang said. He said districts can then apply for those matching dollars to help pay for fiber upgrades in schools.

Lind, the superintendent of Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, said he plans to apply for a portion of those state dollars, as well as money available through the Federal Communications Commission, to help cover what he anticipates will be a roughly $1.1 million investment in fiber technology.

The two districts currently rely on a wireless system, Lind explained. That means whenever bad weather hits, there’s a possibility their internet connection will be affected — something that doesn’t occur with fiber cables that run underground, he said.

“There’s a (satellite) dish on a water tower in town, and it basically shoots a signal to the high school, then the grade schools and the middle school,” he said. “But when we get thunderstorms or rain or if it’s too windy that day — if anything happens to the dish our whole system goes down.”

That’s what happened a year ago when the internet went down for three days, he said. The impact was enormous on students, teachers and the districts’ business office, which also relies on the internet to conduct day-to-day operations, Lind said.

“Being down one or two hours feels like an eternity. Three days is completely unacceptable,” he said.

It’s the initial cost of fiber that’s held the districts back from doing something about their internet troubles sooner, Lind said. He said he hopes that changes with the new state money being offered.

‘We were tired of it’

Ron Jacobs, on the other hand, said he couldn’t wait for the state to appropriate money for an upgrade. He’s the superintendent of Riverdale Community Unit School District 100. The district sits beside the Mississippi River in the village of Port Byron, just a half-hour drive north of the Quad Cities. The district’s three schools serve 1,200 students on a 40-acre campus surrounded on all sides by corn and soybean fields.

Like Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, Jacobs said his students also rely on Chromebooks in the classroom. Their current system, he said, isn’t cutting it. There’s not enough bandwidth for all students with Chromebooks in grades three through 12, their teachers and district administrators to use the internet at the same time, Jacobs said.

The move toward digital learning “forced us to look everywhere we could for greater bandwidth,” he said.

Jacobs said he discovered a group of residents in town were also getting increasingly frustrated by their lack of access to high-speed internet — and they planned to do something about it.

The group formed their own telecommunications company, STRADA Communications. Earlier this year, Port Byron Village Board gave the company approval to install a fiber optic cable in the village, including a connection to the school district.

Port Byron resident Tom Bussert is the parent of both a Riverdale student and a recent Riverdale graduate. He’s also a partner in STRADA Communications.

He said not having access to high-speed internet “is a big disadvantage for the district. We were tired of it and decided to do something about it. There’s a couple of us that have extensive experience building these same systems for other companies throughout the country and that made it an easier leap.”

Jacobs, the superintendent of Riverdale, said the local company cut the district a deal; they agreed to hook the campus up to fiber for about $80,000, he said. He expects the connection to go live this month.

Access to high-speed internet in the classroom is an issue of educational equity, Jacobs said.

“The types of things other kids are able to access by having that kind of connectivity, the videos they’re able to watch, and the information they’re sharing from student to student — that’s one of the things our business community expects from our kids… it’s a 21st century skill,” Jacobs said.

Lind, the superintendent of Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, agrees. He said his students are also at a disadvantage without high-speed connectivity in the classroom.

“We are very fortunate in our district that we have much of what we need,” he said. “But when it comes to delivering the instruction in a modern school, we haven’t gotten to a point where we can rely on that internet being there from day to day. That is a major problem.”