The Broadband Gap

  • The Broadband Gap

It seems that over recent years, schools’ view of a ‘satisfactory’ level of broadband connectivity has declined, as actual bandwidth has increased. The problem, of course, is partly due to the ever-increasing use of mobile technology but also can be explained by school’s mounting expectations. Reliable, high performance broadband and/or internet connectivity is also essential for today’s rising use of cloud computing.

Looking back, it was 14 years ago that the Regional Broadband Consortia (RBC) was created as the Department for Education and Skills’ (DfES) National Grid for Learning (NGfL) programme. In those days, the Regional Broadband Consortia collectively subscribed to a 2 Mbit/s standard for broadband. Today, the majority of learning content is hosted online and the only acceptable access speed is ‘immediate’.

This increasing demand for, and decreasing satisfaction in, broadband connectivity in schools has been predictable for quite some time.

Our research at BESA over the past few years has shown a steady increase in the adoption of mobile technologies, namely tablets. Back in 2013, schools were forecasting that 10 per cent of teaching computers in schools would be tablets; a significant increase from the 6 per cent forecast in 2012. When this year’s respondents looked forward two years to 2016, they suggested that 37 per cent of hardware would be tablets with a further increase to 56 per cent by 2020. To ensure the effectiveness of this technology in schools, the highest level of broadband connectivity is necessary.

The anticipated outcry from schools finally came this year when our research showed that 54 per cent of secondary schools consider themselves under-resourced in Wi-Fi connectivity, with 31 per cent stating they have inadequate broadband connectivity.

British teachers are world leaders in the use of educational technology in the classroom so it is of great concern that pupils are being denied access to innovative and effective digital learning because of poor internet connectivity.

However, what is of more concern is the indication of a digital divide appearing across the country; a clear, direct correlation between those schools stating they have less than 30 per cent of the ideal bandwidth and Wi-Fi connectivity and those based in rural areas has appeared. There are large areas of Wales, North West England and Scotland where the correlation is most identifiable. This backs the 2013 Ofcom analysis and mapping report, which stated that rural locations are likely to bring comparatively slow broadband speeds.

Those rurally located schools stating that they have less than 30 per cent of bandwidth and Wi-Fi requirements also unsurprisingly confirmed that they forecast a low adoption of tablet computers. Despite the national figure of all surveyed schools stating that on average, 37 per cent of pupil facing computers will be tablets by 2016, while schools based in rural areas forecast that only 10 per cent of pupil facing computers will be tablets by 2016.

Equal opportunities

In today’s digital society, classroom connectivity to an online world of knowledge and resources should be a right for every student in their place of learning and not a regional lottery. When I asked David Tindall, director at BESA member organisation, Schools Broadband for his view on the current situation he said, “Rural schools really do get a raw deal at the moment when it comes to having a decent broadband connection.” He went on to explain, “Unfortunately we’re in a situation where delivering broadband in rural areas is prohibited by cost, due to the physical distance of the cabling required. The obvious solution, would be to opt for wireless and satellite technologies, however these are geographically inconsistent at present and require further development before they can be considered as a serious alternative. BT’s Openreach Big Build scheme is currently trialing new wireless and satellite technologies and it will be interesting to see the results of this.”

David concluded, “Keeping pace with advances in internet technology is an absolute necessity for schools, which is why we keep a very close eye on new technologies, to ensure we can provide the tools schools need as soon as they become available.”

Ed Hyde, co-founder and director of Softegg added, “If high broadband speeds are essential to support effective technology adoption and teaching, the government needs to be addressing this as an urgent priority. Schools must ensure they are getting the best high speed broadband available to support teaching, wherever they are.”

In response, while the technology is developing, BESA has made our research available to the Department for Education and the Government’s appointed Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) which has been tasked with looking at the future needs for educational technology in English schools.

BESA would strongly urge that if the Government wishes to help support schools to maintain our position as a world leader in the use of innovative ICT educational products and services, rapid action is needed to expand bandwidth and access to Wi-Fi in UK schools.

Rapid investment into the UK’s digital communications infrastructure is needed in order to safeguard fair and equitable access to technology for learners, as well as to maintain the UK’s strong reputation and history as a world-leader in educational technology and classroom use of ICT.

About the Author

Caroline Wright is director at the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)