Broadband for schools?

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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.

Last year the World Bank published a collection of essays [pdf] as part of its SABER initiative looking at a variety of educational issues in East and Southeast Asia. SABER -- or Systems Approach for Better Education Results -- is an attempt to help countries systematically examine and strengthen the performance of their education systems with the help of some diagnostic tools that help officials compare education policies according to evidence-based global standards and best practice.  In the chapter on 'ICT' [pdf] in the SABER East Asia publication, I looked at the state of ICT use across the region through the lens of a few of the 'core' ICT/education indicators which have been identified, and ended up questioning just what 'connectivity' meant for schools in the region, asking: When it comes to connecting schools to the Internet, is Mongolia more like Korea or Indonesia?

Across the region, as in the rest of the world, it is increasingly common to hear senior government officials call for “all schools to be connected to the Internet.” Of all the core indicators outlined by the UIS-led Working group on ICT Statistics in Education (WISE), progress toward the goal of “connecting schools” appears to be the easiest to measure, although defining what it means to be “connected” can often differ radically among countries. Let’s compare, for example, three countries: Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, and Mongolia. From one perspective, Indonesia is the outlier here, as only 11 percent of its schools are connected, compared to 87 percent in Mongolia and 100 percent in Korea.

Dig a little deeper, however, and a different picture emerges. In Korea, 100 percent of schools are connected to broadband Internet at some of the fastest speeds in the world. Of the schools connected to the Internet in Indonesia and Mongolia, almost all of them use fixed narrowband connections—less than 256 kilobits per second. So when one evaluates the state of school connectivity in Mongolia, the answer depends on the goal, which may, on the one hand, be enabling teachers and students to communicate via e-mail or, on the other hand, be facilitating real-time access to rich media learning resources online. For the latter, a fast Internet connection is what really matters.

How fast is 'fast' -- and how fast is 'broadband'?

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a group set up in 2010 by the ITU and UNESCO, believes that "high-speed, high-capacity broadband connections to the Internet are an essential element in modern society, conferring broad social and economic benefits. Without broadband infrastructure and services, developing countries risk exclusion from participation in the burgeoning global digital economy." Its 2012 annual report [pdf] discusses the imperative of moving "from narrowband to broadband, from kilobits to gigabits".  Just where to draw the line between narrow- and broadband is still as much art as science, however. The Commission's big 2011 report [pdf] looks at the different ways that broadband can be, and is, defined. One (seemingly) simple and straightforward way to do this would be to set minimum upstream and/or downstream transmission speeds. (I have added the word 'seemingly' here, because the differences between advertised speeds offered by service providers, and what is actually measured in practice, can vary quite a bit.) Alternatively, the report notes that you can define it based on the type of technology being used (e.g. 'fiber'), or by the nature of service being offered.

Whatever the case, the recent past seems to demonstrate that, in many education systems, as bandwidth supply increases, demand for the bandwidth tends to increase even faster, as applications previously considered luxuries are considered 'necessary'. (Someone has no doubt coined a shorthand 'law' of some sort to describe this phenomenon; if so, I'd be grateful if this could be added to the comments section below.)

Noting that different countries defined broadband differently, in its report A 2010 Leadership Imperative: Towards a Future Built on Broadband [pdf], the Commission "decided to focus on considering broadband as based on a set of core concepts, such as an always-on service (not needing the user to make a new connection to a server each time), and high-capacity: able to carry lots of data per second, rather than at a particular speed.  The practical result is that broadband enables the combined provision of voice, data and video at the same time." After debating various potential ways of defining broadband (qualitative vs. quantitative, or some combination of the two), the Commission opined that countries could "distinguish the services they hope to provide via broadband networks, and work to establish the infrastructure capable of achieving those goals. By using this approach, it would be possible to avoid settling on a specific figure in terms of speed alone, and instead make recommendations to individual countries based on their level of existing infrastructure and their target services for the future."

infoDev's very useful broadband toolkit identifies how a number of countries attempt to define broadband in practice, from Brazil's qualitative attempt ("the provision of telecommunications infrastructure that enables information traffic in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, with sufficient capacity to provide access to data, voice and video applications that are common or socially relevant to users as determined by the federal government from time to time”) to the more numeric targets expressed by countries like the UK (2 Mbit/s) to Finland (100 Mbit/s) to Korea (1 Gbit/s!). 2Mbit/s to 1 Gbit/s -- that's a pretty large range! (1 gigabit = 1024 megabits)

Unsure what this means in practical terms? The broadband classroom section of the U.S.'s national broadband map has a useful chart that identifies just how long it would take a user to download various common types of media (a book, a song, a movie) at various speeds:

Speed: Greater than or equal to 1.5 Mbps and less than 3 Mbps
Within this speed tier, a typical consumer download experience would be:
Book (1 MB in size) - 2.7 seconds
Song (4 MB in size) - 10.7 seconds
Movie (6144 MB in size) - 4 hours and 33 minutes

Speed: Greater than or equal to 100 Mbps and less than 1 Gbps
Within this speed tier, a typical consumer download experience would be:
Book (1 MB in size) - > 0.1 seconds
Song (4 MB in size) - > 0.1 seconds
Movie (6144 MB in size) - 49.2 seconds

Most schools in developing countries today can unfortunately only dream of such connectivity. More common for them are

Speed: Less than or equal to 200 Kbps
At this speed, a typical consumer upload experience would be:
Book (1 MB in size) - 40 seconds
Song (4 MB in size) - 2 minutes and 40 seconds
Movie (6144 MB in size) - 68 hours and 16 minutes

Speed: Greater than 200 Kbps and less than 768 Kbps
Within this speed tier, a typical consumer upload experience would be:
Book (1 MB in size) - 10.4 seconds.
Song (4 MB in size) - 41.7 seconds
Movie (6144 MB in size) - 17 hours and 47 minutes

These speeds, it should be noted, are for a 'typical consumer' -- schools of course rarely have only a single 'consumer' at a time attempting to access the Internet! In such educational environments, bandwidth remains a very scarce resource. In such circumstances, school computer labs administrators often circulate some quick hints to teachers and students as a way to help decrease bandwidth bottlenecks, even if only at the margins. Caching content locally remains a powerful tool in this regard, as do things like recommending that users visit versions of web sites optimized for access on mobile phones (in extreme cases, the trusty 'turn off images' trick is still en vogue -- old African ICT4D hands may be surprised to know that services like lo-band are still around!). I do remember working with students in a school in Ghana when the Internet ground to a halt because they all began to send email to each other -- using their Yahoo email accounts, which presumably meant that emails were essentially traveling halfway around the world in order to move between children sitting a few feet from each other.

um, that's actually a breadboard connection, not a broadband connection
um, that's actually a breadboard connection,
not a
broadband connection

The current questionnaire [pdf] being used by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics as part of its work leading efforts to collect globally comparable data on ICT use in schools in countries around the world asks about the availability of 'fixed broadband', which is defined as "high-speed connectivity for public use of at least 256 Kbit/s or more in one or both directions (downloading and uploading)." This questionnaire is currently being revised by UIS, as a result of what it and its partners have learned over the past two years since the questionnaire has been in widespread use by various groups as part of regional survey work, and because definitions such as this, while perhaps outdated at the time they were first introduced, have become much more so in the past few years as a result of technological and commercial advances. If not 256 Kbit/s, what should the new figure be? The UK target of 2 Mbit/s is seen by the telecom regulator there as too low; the Korean target of 1 Gbit/s is simply not realistic for any other country (with the exception, perhaps, of places like the small and wealthy Southeast Asian island nation of Singapore).

Letting each country define broadband according to its own practice (as the Broadband Commission contemplates) means that we wouldn't have globally comparable data in this area. Given that many of the places which advocate extending 'broadband' to schools cite a desire to be 'internationally competitive' in support of such efforts, variable definitions of broadband would most likely complicate efforts by a country to benchmark school-level connectivity against its 'competitors' around the world. In the U.S., an oft-cited recommendation issued by SETDA in 2012 was that, "by the 2014-2015 school year, schools have at least 100 megabits per second of connectivity to the external Internet for every 1,000 students and/or staff member". Some critics of this figure note that such crude measures ignore the potential importance (indeed, the necessity) of prudent bandwidth management and optimization at the local level (the school, the district), and suspect that such targets are as much about meeting the needs of industry to sell equipment and related services to schools as it is about the education value of such goals. (The discussion thread that follows a related story on Slashdot highlights these sorts of perspectives.) Other critics note that such a target is simply far beyond the reach of most countries in the world, and so is impractical as an sort of attainable global benchmark.

One common rule of thumb that I hear mentioned in a schools context is that 'broadband is what you have when you can comfortably watch streamed video' -- with 4 Mbit/s considered to be a useful threshold at the user level in this regard. That said, people who try to collect data on school connectivity around the world note that, if you ask schools what connection speeds they have, they most likely will not know. As a practical matter, then, it may be better to ask them something that is easy to answer and verify, such as 'do you have a fiber connection to the Internet?'

So where does this leave us?

Planning for technology use in education is a messy business in many ways. The EduTech blog is in many ways an attempt to explore this messiness. Many posts here have begun by trying to examine and unpack seemingly simple questions, but end up asking more questions than they provide answers to. Upon re-reading, today's post on broadband in schools appears to fall decidedly in this category. My apologies for this.

Just as rationales in support of the roll-out of broadband to schools vary across countries, so too do the definitions of what 'broadband for schools' is meant to be. Even where they succeed in defining the term in 2013 (if indeed they do attempt to define it), I suspect that most policymakers will find that today's definition of 'broadband for schools' will inevitably meet tomorrow's definition of 'narrowband'. (Nobody says this stuff is easy!) A teacher in Kenya once told me that, in her definition, 'broadband is whatever is faster than what our school has now'. I suspect that this sentiment would resonate with many teachers, students, school administrators and communities around the world, and encapsulates a challenge for educational policymakers for many years to come.

Some useful additional resources:

[-] The ITU's Toolkit of Best Practices and Policy Advice toolkit from its Connect a School, Connect a Community  initiative
[-] Benchmarking Access and Use of ICTs in European Schools [pdf] from 2006
[-] Australia's National Broadband Network
[-] from the U.S. Department of Education: Broadband Availability to U.S. Schools and Colleges
[-] If you are looking for data on school connectivity around the world, the ICT in Education data collection efforts being led by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) will probably be your best source of information in the coming years
[-] Your best one-stop-shop for global connectivity statistics in general is the ITU, whose latest Handbook for the collection of administrative data on telecommunications/ICT  was published in 2011. Each year the ITU and the World Bank publish a Little Data Book on Information and Communication Technology.
[-] The World Bank's new ICT Strategy is "Transform, Innovate and Connect". The Bank's infoDev program published a very useful Broadband Strategies Handbook last year that looks at how broadband is defined, why it is important, and how its development can be encouraged.
[-] In recent years a movement has developed that considers access to broadband a 'right'. Finland was the first country to grab headlines in this regard. Here is the much-cited UN report [pdf] that discusses access to the Internet in term of human rights [pdf].

(This blog post was inspired by conversations and email exchanges with colleagues at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.)

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of an advertisement for high speed unlimited broadband pasted to a tree in Bangalore, India ("if only this tree were outside my school!") comes from the Wikipedian Victor Grigas via Wikimedia Commons. The second image in the post ("um, that's actually a breadboard connection, not a broadband connection") comes from Wikipedian Mbroemme5783 via Wikimedia Commons. Both images are used according to the terms of their Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenses.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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