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Universal Service Funds & connecting schools to the Internet around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
maybe there's another way to support this?
maybe there's another way to support this?

We need to connect our schools to the Internet. While it may not (yet) be viable to do so in many countries, few education policymakers would question this general aspiration.

Of course, questions related to the speed and nature of this connection are being articulated and considered in different ways around the world, with answers determined by a mix of factors, including what is technologically feasible, what is pedagogically useful and, in the end, what is affordable. Calculations around what it may cost to connect schools to the Internet, and to keep them connected, in ways that are useful and relevant to learners and teachers (as well as to administrators and families), differ widely from place to place -- as do approaches on how to pay for these costs.

Over the past two decades, I have spent a lot of time helping to facilitate policy planning sessions with governments around issues related to technology use in education. Whether this work was part of efforts by the World Links program, linked to the use of the ICT in Education Toolkit supported by infoDev and UNESCO, or as part of more mainstream World Bank advisory activities, mechanisms and approaches by which countries can connect their schools to the Internet have always been a major area of discussion.

It may seem like a small thing, but one of the signature successes of many of these planning efforts wasn't the development of a related policy document outlining a vision and approach for how new technologies could and would be used to support a variety of education objectives. That was almost always the stated goal, but, as anyone who has worked in policymaking circles knows well, committing something to paper is no guarantee that what was drafted will ever actually be implemented -- nor that what's implemented will in the end have any beneficial impact 'on-the-ground'. No, in many cases the most important thing that happened in practice was to connect a diverse set of actors from outside the education sector together with the 'usual suspects' from within education ministries. The fact that you had, in the same room and at the same time, education officials sitting together with officials from the telecom authority, and the IT and finance ministries, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector -- often times we found that this was the first time ever that all of these groups had talked collectively about how they might work in coordination to help meet some of the shared goals that all of them had related to technology use and education.

One mechanism that is integral to initiatives to connect schools in some countries (and thus which features prominently in these sorts of planning discussions), but which is largely unknown in others (and thus doesn't feature at all), is the use of so-called Universal Service Funds to help pay for such efforts.

For those not familiar with the concept or practice:

How many schools are connected to the Internet?

Michael Trucano's picture
ALPAL-2? EASSy? SAm-1? WACS?
ALPAL-2? EASSy? SAm-1? WACS?

As we near the halfway point of the second decade of the 21st century, it is difficult not to marvel at all of the new technologies that have insinuated their way into daily lives of increasing numbers of people around the world. An upcoming publication from the World Bank, the World Development Report for 2016, will explore the Internet's "impact on economic growth, on social and economic opportunity, and on the efficiency of public service delivery". The EduTech blog regularly features and comments on specific projects and research about how the Internet (as well as related technologies, technology platforms and technology-enabled approaches) is being utilized to benefit education in developing countries around the world (as well as some instances where it is having no benefit at all).

As insightful as lessons from efforts like those related to using mobile phones to promote literacy in Papua New Guinea or providing all students with their own laptops in Uruguay might be, however, it is worthwhile to take a step (or two, or twenty) back in an attempt to see the outlines of the big(ger) picture. While it is true that groups around the world continue to implement innovative solutions to simulate Internet connectivity in places where it still doesn't exist in schools (through the caching of content on local servers or portable drives, for example), this is almost always a stop-gap measure until something better comes along, namely: reliable, robust, fast, inexpensive connections to the Internet.

On-the-ground, practical experiences with introducing and using new digital technologies in education systems around the world over the past two decades have led many to conclude that a 'second digital divide' has emerged, separating those with the skills and competencies to benefit from the use of these new technologies from those who are not benefitting, or not benefitting to the same extent. There can be little doubt that such a second divide exists, and that this divide, which is focused on the impact of technology use, may well be more difficult to bridge than the original 'digital divide', which related primarily to access to technology. While in the end we are rightly concerned with outcomes, and impacts, inputs still matter. With this in mind, and with full acknowledgement that connectivity is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a larger end, it might be worth asking:

How many schools around the world are connected to the Internet?

Until recently we had little hard (or even soft) data to help us answer what would appear, on its face, to be a rather simple question. Things are improving in this regard, however. As it stands today, your best source of insight in this regard is probably a document with the delightfully bureaucratic title, Final WSIS Targets Review: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward, that you may have missed when it appeared last June. In case it may be of interest (a former boss of mine used to say: We pay you to read this stuff so that we don't have to!), I thought I'd take a quick look at it here.

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Broadband for schools?

Michael Trucano's picture
if only this tree were outside my school!
if only this tree were outside my school!

Schools should be connected to the Internet. Most people, I suspect, would agree with that statement (although a few dissenters may contend that such a statement does not go far enough, and that all schools *must* be connected to the Internet.) Indeed: Lots of countries around the world have been, and are, engaged in efforts to connect all of their schools to the Internet -- and for those schools that are already connected, to connect them faster.

The efforts of the United States in this regard that began under the 'e-rate' program in the 1990s have been much studied and emulated around the world, and countries as diverse as Malaysia, Morocco and Turkey have sought in various ways to utilize Universal Service Funds to help connect the un-connected. Korea has perhaps gone the furthest in rolling out very fast connectivity to all of its schools. Armenia will soon (if has not done so already) have completed connecting all of its schools to the Internet; when I last checked (in late 2012), Uruguay had almost done so as well. Given current technology infrastructure and available funds, not all countries are of course yet able to connect all schools, even if they consider this to be a priority. (Even in a country as developed as Uruguay, 70 schools were reported still to be without electricity in early 2012 -- not being connected to the electrical grid can make efforts roll out connectivity to all a little more difficult ....) In countries where almost all schools can be connected via existing means, a lack of supporting government policies and/or incentives for groups to connect the unconnected schools can mean that, even where connections to the Internet are technically feasible, they may not be commercially or practically feasible. Some recent work by the World Bank found that 95% of all schools in Indonesia could theoretically be connected to the Internet now, if the political will could be found and provided certain policies and incentives were put into place. (Connecting the remaining 5% of schools -- no small number, in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, with over 13,000 (!) islands and 250,000 schools  -- would be much more difficult, as many of the schools in this 5% category are quite remote, and there are as a result often significant, and very costly, infrastructure challenges to overcome.)

OK, if all schools should (or must) be connected to the Internet, what should be the nature of that connection?

Again, most people would probably agree that, in 2013, all schools should have broadband connections to the Internet. This is, in fact, a common theme in many of the national policies related to ICT use in education one encounters around the world, especially in the more 'advanced' (OECD) countries, and increasingly in middle income countries as well. Reasonable people may (and do!) disagree about the extent to which school connectivity should be prioritized compared with other pressing needs in the education sector, but, while there may be a lack of consensus on the relative importance, the general importance of connecting schools, and indeed in doing so at broadband speeds, is a widely held goal in much of the world (even if it is not always practical in the near term). That said:

What exactly does 'broadband' mean when we are talking about connecting schools to the Internet?

It turns out there is no simple answer to this query. Indeed, there are lots of different answers, depending on where you are and the context in which you are posing such a question.