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Montana Digital Academy

Montana is working to increase students' access to broadband across the state, with Gov. Steve Bullock announcing Wednesday that all of Montana's K-12 schools now meet the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum recommendation for broadband of 100 kilobits per second — a measure of bandwidth — per student

The availability of broadband in Montana classrooms, up to 100% from 98% last year, and 78% in 2015, is one step toward increasing digital learning opportunities for the state's students, although many schools still fall short of internet speeds needed for digital resources.

“We need to continue to bridge the gap between urban and rural schools and ensure that every classroom is equipped with 21st-century technology to allow our teachers to be innovative and for students to be better prepared for a modern and changing workforce,” Bullock said in a press release.

Although all of Montana's K-12 schools now have broadband at 100 kbps per student, that speed isn't enough to support the majority of online learning including courses through Montana Digital Academy, the state's online program for public schools. The Montana Digital Academy is part of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Montana.

Lessons through the Montana Digital Academy generally require speeds of at least 1 to 1.5 megabits per second for each student, according to assistant director Jason Neiffer. A megabit is 1,000 times faster than a kilobit.

Only 20% of the state's students are meeting 1 Mbps per student, compared to 24% nationally, according to a report released Wednesday from EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit the state partnered with in 2015 that aims to increase access to reliable broadband in schools.

"Students can get away with less but most courses involve some form of multimedia or video or digital interaction," Neiffer said.

Students in schools with 100 kbps may still have access to higher broadband speeds depending on how many students are using the internet at the same time. The total bandwidth per district is calculated as the sum of the capacity of all internet connections divided by the total number of students in the district, according to EducationSuperHighway.

"If only one-fifth or one-tenth of the school's students are using the internet at once, they'd have more access to higher speeds," Neiffer said. "If you have 100 kbps per student and you have 100 students, that's really slow."

Increasing broadband speeds in Montana's schools would allow more students to access courses through the Montana Digital Academy that might not otherwise be available at smaller, rural schools such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and elective courses.

"We have a rural teacher shortage and most small schools have finite staffing resources, which mean that a lot of classes aren't able to be offered," Neiffer said.

The state will continue to work with local, state and federal partners to further enhance broadband access statewide, Bullock said in the press release.

A rising number of schools in Montana have the infrastructure they need for higher speeds. According to the EducationSuperHighway report, 64% of the state's schools without the infrastructure for high-speed broadband in 2016 have since upgraded to fiber. 

A total of 450 schools in Montana now have fiber, and 62 schools still need to be upgraded to scalable infrastructure that is needed to keep up with growing bandwidth for online learning.

Montana has used $9 million in federal WiFi funding since 2015, and continues to receive annual funding through the FCC of up to $150 per student or a minimum of $9,200 per school, adjusted for inflation.

The median cost of bandwidth in Montana has also decreased by 76% since 2015, from $10 per Mbps in 2015 down to $2.40 per Mbps in 2019, according to the report.

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