Why getting rural schools up to internet speed is such an incredibly slow go 

Viewed from Highway 12, Woodman School is a pastoral painter's dream. A bell tower tops the white wooden schoolhouse, which sits on a hill 10 miles west of Lolo. Cows graze in a pasture out front or lay across a dirt road leading up to the grounds.

The teaching that occurs inside, however, is decidedly modern—for the most part. "We're a Google school," middle-school teacher Charise Jacobson says. Students have access to a computer lab with 10 laptops, and teachers can deploy another eight Chromebooks as needed. Everyone uses Google Drive to share files and Gmail to communicate. For a school with 32 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Woodman is pretty tech savvy.

Except, that is, for one hold-over from a nostalgic past: really, really, slow internet. Woodman has one of the slowest internet connections of any school in Montana, a mere 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth to go around. (By comparison, Spectrum advertises 60 Mbps for its residential service).

A connection that slow tests more than teachers' patience. It dictates the terms of classroom instruction. Students ride buses to Lolo to take computerized assessments at that district's computer lab, turning a 30-minute checkup exam into a 90-minute ordeal. When the Missoula Public Library's W.O.W Bus ventures up the valley, librarians have trouble accessing their database to process students' books. The school relies on the Montana Digital Academy to introduce middle schoolers to foreign languages, but the students must ration their time taking the online courses throughout the week.

Woodman isn't the only Montana school that's lagging. Montana ranks 49th, just ahead of Alaska, in its percentage of schools with fiber connections (70 percent), according to the nonprofit broadband advocacy group EducationSuperhighway. In terms of bandwidth, the state is making good progress: 90 percent of districts met federal connectivity targets last year, up from 78 percent in 2015. There's a phrase in the telecommunications world, "the last mile," that refers to the particular challenges of delivering signals from the main line to remote users locations. The remaining Montana districts without high-speed internet—mainly in rural areas—represent a similar "last mile" challenge to ensuring that all students have equal access to online learning.

Make that the last nine miles, in Woodman's case. The path of Highway 12 is served by a DSL line owned by CenturyLink, and the only option for improving internet speed in the area is to dig a trench and lay a fiber line from Lolo.

click to enlarge At Woodman School, YouTube videos buffer for as long as it takes the cows out front to chew their cud. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • At Woodman School, YouTube videos buffer for as long as it takes the cows out front to chew their cud.

School officials have been trying to accomplish that for more than three years, but they've been stymied by a lack of expertise, high costs, and trouble convincing CenturyLink to undertake the project. But last month, fiber was finally put within reach.

"It's been a long road for us," says Jeff Crews, a tech consultant hired by the district.

Connecting Woodman's 32 students to high-speed internet will cost $954,000. Federal "E-rate" funding can cover the lion's share, but Woodman was still a few hundred thousand dollars short. Earlier this year, the Montana Legislature allocated $2 million over the next two years in state matching dollars so districts can access more federal assistance, bringing the total state and federal contributions to 90 percent of Woodman's upgrade costs.

But coming up with the money isn't always the hardest part. CenturyLink didn't respond to the district's first two RFPs for the project, leaving local officials scratching their heads over a way forward.

The Montana Telecommunications Association, which represents rural providers, has publicly committed to getting every school in its members' service areas up to speed by the end of 2017. Most of its schools already are. But many of the districts with slow internet are serviced by corporate providers such as CenturyLink, which, according to EducationSuperhighway's data, didn't provide adequate connections to a third of the students it serves last year.

Woodman "kept at it," Crews says, and this spring CenturyLink submitted a bid. (Asked about its service to Woodman, a company spokesperson emailed a general statement listing distance and geography as top barriers to deployment). The school should have its fiber connection in place either this fall or next summer.

On June 6, Gov. Steve Bullock visited Woodman to celebrate the pending upgrade. Teachers tried to underscore their slow internet speed with a demonstration, but as is often the case with technology, it didn't go as planned.

"Usually, in the afternoon, it's so slow loading, a video is totally out of the question," Jacobson says. "However, nobody was online, they were all at the event, so it actually worked way better than it should have."

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