Broadband Access Critical for Distance Education

Pete CodellaBroadband

ecs logo fbThe Education Commission of the States (ECS) cites lacking broadband infrastructure and affordability as the most significant barriers for students accessing postsecondary distance education.  A new report issued by the commission details these challenges and discusses the increasing demand for online and distance education.

The report, titled, “Broadband Access and Implications for Efforts to Address Equity Gaps in Postsecondary Attainment,” shares statistics on distance education showing from 2003-2012, the number of students taking online classes rose from 16% to 32%.  Most recently, 13% of postsecondary students take exclusively online coursework and at least one out of every four students take some online coursework.  These trends show no signs of slowing, making broadband a key tool for postsecondary education.

Following the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to redefine industry-standard broadband from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps, many rural communities came to understand how equitable access to high-speed Internet differed by region. Currently, 53% of those living in rural areas nationally lack access to new industry standard speeds.  Comparatively, only 8% of urban residents lack access.  According to 2014 data, an average of 96.2% of Utahns had access to industry-standard broadband speeds.  This statistic reflects the State’s relatively advanced infrastructure progress.

Regardless of access, affordability is the greatest barrier for 43% of broadband non-adopters.  Households earning $50,000 or more in annual income adopt broadband at a rate of 89%, while households earning less than $20,000 adopt at a rate of 47%. In addition to household income, educational attainment is a strong predictor for broadband adoption.  Individuals without a high school diploma have a 54% adoption rate, while individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher have a 91% adoption rate.  Again, Utah boasts a comparatively high household adoption rate, with 81.7% of residents subscribing to at-home Internet, ranking the state 3rd nationally for highest adoption rates.

Since education is so closely linked with economic mobility, and distance education is typically less expensive than traditional postsecondary options, addressing equitable access issues will be key for future economic development.  Federal policy, like the FCC’s recent reforms to Lifeline and the White House ConnectALL initiative, has the potential to influence progress.  As for state and local governments, The ECS recommends targeting broadband infrastructure development in areas with both low speeds and low educational attainment, as opportunities for distance education may have the most dramatic impact on rural development.

As broadband and communications policy continue to intersect with education, health, and public safety policy, state broadband initiatives will play an important role in directing development.  Currently, the Utah Broadband Outreach Center helps meet many of the ECS recommendations to policy makers, including broadband mapping and support for public/private partnerships.

To read the full ECS report, click here: