Colorado schools look to stimulus funding for broadband boost

Many Colorado schools operate without adequate access to an increasingly critical utility:  broadband service. It’s a problem that plagues many rural and some urban districts in the state.

Many are hoping federal stimulus money can change the situation.

Unlike school districts in states such as Nebraska and Utah, Colorado schools haven’t worked together as well to buy bandwidth in bulk, reports the Denver Post.

“Whenever you have to individually go out as a school district and negotiate . . . to get data, they just charge you an arm and a leg, especially out here in the country,” Neil Schaal, director of technology for the Weld County School District Re-3J, told the Denver Post.

At the recently-built, $21 million Weld Central High School, for example, students can’t download music or watch streaming video. They have to take turns going online to look at colleges. And for that, the district pays $8,000 a month, receiving only 7.5 Mbps of bandwidth, or 3.5 kilobits per student.

It’s the state average for Colorado—but nearly half the national average of 6.4 Kbps per student, and it’s far short of the 40 Kbps per student that the 2008 America’s Digital Schools study argues schools will soon need.

But recently, a consortium composed of Colorado school districts, libraries, educational cooperatives and other organizations submitted a grant proposal for $178.5 million in stimulus grants. If successful, the grant would allow the consortium to contract with private companies to develop the infrastructure to provide about 20 Mbps of bandwidth per school.

Better broadband service would allow rural high school students some of the benefits accorded to urban high school students, like the ability to simultaneously earn an associate degree by taking community college classes—online. So noted State Representatives Karen Middleton in a recent meeting with San Luis Valley school officials.

Not only would the grant money improve access, it would dramatically cut cost. In the Weld County School District, for example, monthly broadband costs could drop to as little as $50-$80 a month per Mbps—meaning the district could obtain five times as much bandwidth for one-fifth its current cost.

The consortium should hear about the grant by the end of the year.

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Katie Redding

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