Testing students tests broadband in California

3 March 2014 by Steve Blum
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More complicated than sending a note home to mother.

The first step in identifying broadband availability gaps in California is defining how much and where bandwidth is needed. Education is a major driver of bandwidth demand, particularly as new methods for measuring how well California’s children are being taught come into effect. That initiative – the so-called Smarter Balance Assessment – replaces pencil and paper tests with online computers. But the initial guidelines drawn up by education officials for estimating the broadband speeds necessary are too simplistic, according to California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval.

“That technical advice is psycho”, Sandoval said. The Internet speeds available to schools need to be fast enough to let students move through the tests as quickly as they’re able, otherwise “we’re testing broadband and not their brains”.

She was the keynote speaker at the second annual broadband consortia summit in Sacramento. In the afternoon, leaders from the 14 regional broadband consortia funded by the CPUC via the California Advanced Services Fund discussed how to identify which areas of the state have the greatest need for infrastructure construction subsidies.

I gave an overview of the analysis we’ve done in the Central Coast region. Some consortia took a similarly quantitative approach, others focused on what they saw as obvious needs. Connie Stewart, from the Redwood Coast consortium, used the availability of local matching funds – public or private – as a top criterion for setting priorities: projects won’t be built if the money isn’t there.

The Gold Country consortium, in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, has decided not to wait for CASF subsidies. Randy Wagner, its new executive director, brought along four local wireless Internet service providers that he introduced as “my best friends” and said their goal is to reach unserved communities – those with no access other than dial-up or satellite – within three to four months.

The summit wraps up tomorrow.