Stimulus money to wire Utah's elementary schools

Broadband » Federal grant requires $3.5 million state match.
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Utah education officials have secured a $13.4 million federal grant to pipe broadband into dozens of elementary schools, making Internet access available to thousands of students. But the project requires a hefty state commitment that some lawmakers fear could be undermined if the Legislature takes a hatchet to higher education spending.

There are about 150 elementary and charter schools in Utah served by inadequate, low-capacity Internet connections, according to Michael Peterson, executive director of the Utah Education Network. The grant, which UEN secured through a competitive process, will underwrite the first phase in a statewide effort to bring fiber-based Ethernet lines into every school.

"Imagine if you had several hundred students, plus staff and teachers and they're all sharing a T-1 line. They can't do online testing that's now required," Peterson said. "They can't use media-intensive instruction. Those children cannot receive a 21st century education with that kind of connectivity. Network connectivity in a school is as important as electricity and phone service."

The grant comes from a $4.7 billion pool of federal stimulus money distributed by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The money will expand broadband infrastructure and public computer center capacity, and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service.

"In today's society, if you don't have regular access to high-speed Internet, you don't have access to all the educational and employment opportunities it provides," said NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling in a statement. "Fast, reliable Internet connections can help Americans gain job training and skills, open doors for small businesses, and give students the opportunity to explore vast libraries and archives from their local school or library."

Efforts by UEN, which handles communication and Internet services for the Utah System of Higher Education, to extend these services to the lower grades enjoys broad support from education officials, who supplied endorsements in the grant application.

"This grant means that students and teachers will gain access to a wide variety of video and multimedia content and interaction available via broadband connectivity," wrote Superintendent Barry Newbold of the Jordan School District.

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Salt Lake City, lauded the grant, which he says will benefit almost 1 million Utahns and create 450 jobs.

"Economic growth is powered by the 21st century infrastructure that connects students and businesses to the global classroom and marketplace," said Matheson in a statement. "Money spent building this digital superhighway benefits every Utah family that has access to a computer at home, in a library or school, now and for years to come."

The state is required to put up a $3.5 million match during the next three years. Given the uncertainty surrounding state support for higher education this legislative session, there is some concern whether UEN will have the funds and staff to meet obligations that come with the grant.

UEN intends to use the grant to wire 88 public and charter schools, 35 public libraries, and seven Head Start centers, benefiting more than half the state's elementary schools. Peterson's office has another grant application in the works to provide broadband to the remaining schools.