Schools and Libraries Still Living in Dial-Up Age

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Brad Parbs

Remember the agony of waiting for a Web site to load, before broadband was widely available? According to a recent survey, a lot of American schools and libraries are still living in that era.

Only 35% of public libraries have broadband speeds between 1.5 Mbps and 10 Mbps (a rather broad range); 34.7% have speeds lower than 1.5 Mbps, and only 24.9% have broadband speeds higher than 10 Mbps, according to data from the American Library Assocation's Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey (PDF). As a comparison, Netflix says that an Internet connection of at least 1.5 Mbps is necessary to stream videos at the lowest possible quality.

But keeping up with the requisite Internet speed isn't the only challenge that schools and libraries face. With the increasing demands for data, there are also challenges of bandwidth. Multiple users on multiple machines -- whether accessing the Internet through hardwire or wireless -- put additional strains on resources, so that even if a library or school has high-speed broadband, a user experiences dial-up-like speeds.

The FCC has made broadband access the focus of some of its efforts over the last few years, arguing for its importance to the U.S. economy and education. It's pushing for better access across the board, but also recognizing the importance of high-speed Internet specifically at schools and libraries.

Universities tend to have better-than-average speeds, and the FCC is urging these schools to help extend these speeds to the communities around them. The agency also wants to make sure that access to broadband at school extends to the home.


But this is still a long way off, if you consider another recent report from the Internet content delivery company Akamai, which reveals that the U.S. ranks 13th in the world in broadband adoption, trailing behind a number of European and Asian countries. Akamai released its quarterly State of the Internet report this week detailing the amount of traffic, speed, and penetration of the Internet throughout the world, including broadband and mobile access and usage.

The Netherlands unseated South Korea this quarter for the country with the highest broadband connectivity, with some 68% of its population having access to Internet at speeds higher than 5 Mbps.

Coming in at number 13 isn't that impressive a showing for the U.S., but broadband adoption here has for the first time broken the 40% threshold, with 42% of Americans having access to high-speed Internet.

Why is knowing broadband speed important? It gives us insight into how much access to the online world Americans have. Broadband is a crucial piece of infrastructure for communication. At this point, there are plenty of Web sites and online services that simply can't be uploaded or fully accessed with just dial-up Internet access anymore. Broadband is required to stream movies, to use VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) services like Skype, to shop and surf and, of course, study. And even with broadband capabilities, low Internet speeds make all these things incredibly frustrating.

Akamai's statistics are averages for countries and states, and in some ways these averages obscure some of the vast differences within geographic areas. Within states, there are cities and neighborhoods where Internet speeds and broadband penetration are high; there are places where they're frightfully low.

On a state-by-state level, Rhode Island overtook Delaware this past quarter as the state with the fastest average connection speed: 8.2 Mbps. That's up 21% from the last quarterly report. Delaware's average is 8.1 Mbps, followed by DC at 7.5 Mpbs, and Utah at 7 Mbps. The slowest state: Arkansas, with an average of 3.3 Mbps.

Interested in learning more about your city's and your local schools' broadband speeds? You can visit the Department of Education's interactive map here for more details.