There is a good chance that you’ve heard how Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — in the form of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Facebook founder’s nascent Startup:Education organization — have contributed to a $9 million investment round in EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based non-profit whose goal is to "upgrade the Internet access in America’s public schools."
The money is a considerable show of faith in what was heretofore a low-profile effort founded just last year, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider exactly what Gates, Zuckerberg and the rest of the funders are up to. Their money won’t simply go toward buying broadband for public schools. Broadband isn’t like a schoolbook. You can’t simply pay for it, drop it on the doorstep and move on. High-speed Internet must be integrated into the local broadband market and kept up like the living network it is.
Nearly every school in the U.S. has Internet access in one form or another. Yet some 80 percent of schools, according to one 2012 survey, say they don’t have the broadband necessary to meet their needs.
To bridge that gap, EducationSuperHighway is focused instead on what amounts to tech support. The first step is testing: Getting parents, teachers and others to go into a school, fire up a browser, point it to SchoolSpeedTest.org and find out how much broadband the institution currently has. That speed data — information telecom companies have traditionally held on to — feeds into a national database, creating a picture of the state of educational broadband. It also helps schools understand the raw truth of the connectivity with which they’re working.
The group’s next step is to troubleshoot a school’s networks, helping it to understand "bottlenecks" that slow down technologies. The third part of the plan is to gather pricing data on school-accessible broadband so that educators know what’s available. EducationSuperHighway might, the group says, also try to help schools come together to buy broadband in bulk, so as to drive down the price.
Part of the reason why the organization and its tech-industry backers have taken this approach is that there’s money, particularly federal funding, for educational broadband out there — billions, in fact, some of which comes from President Obama’s ConnectED push to connect schools. What they’re up to is something akin to how some of us might play tech support for our parents from time to time. It’s often a knowledge gap, not a money gap, that keeps schools from accessing the tech they need.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.