Future of Learning

Billions more in spending for school Internet connections under FCC proposal

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After months of pleas from the nation’s school leaders, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission agreed Monday that billions more dollars each year are needed to improve school and library Internet connections.

Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed raising the cap on such spending by about $1.5 billion a year to support work to link nearly every school with a reliable, high-speed Internet connection. About 70 percent lack such service now, according to federal estimates.

If the additional funding is approved, it would bring the cap on total yearly spending on this program to about $3.9 billion.

Educators and students in schools without enough bandwidth cannot reliably access online tools and resources. In some schools that means not all children can get online at one time. And antiquated connections in some buildings limit the use of modern technology, such as streaming videos. About 41 percent of rural schools and about 31 percent of urban schools do not have fiber network connections, according to a recent FCC report.

Related: After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

Wheeler’s statement, made Monday in a conference call with reporters, comes after intense lobbying by leaders at schools, libraries and outside organizations that support education technology. A September letter to the FCC supporting an increase in spending was signed by more than six dozen organizations, including the NAACP, National Rural Education Association, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Federation of Teachers.

“In a time when almost every single classroom and the majority of libraries in the nation have lower speed internet access than the average American home, while serving multiple times more users per day, it is time to ensure that our libraries and schools are connected with the quality of connectivity that is sufficient,” the organizations wrote in the letter submitted Sept. 30.

Many of these groups welcomed the increase suggested by Wheeler on Monday.

“Achieving educational equity and excellence now and in the future depends in part on the nation’s ability to promote digital equity, and the Chairman’s proposal takes an incredibly important step in the right direction for students,” Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said in a statement. “[The association] urges the full Commission to approve this critically needed investment in our schools’ broadband capacity.”

It is not a done deal. The proposal would require an increase on a phone bill tax. The FCC funds education technology through a 99-cent charge on cellular and land-line telephones. The Wheeler proposal would raise that tax by about 16 to 19 cents a month, according to estimates released Monday by the FCC.

The proposal will be voted on at the commission’s next meeting, Dec.11. The commission’s five members include three Democrats and two Republicans. The Republican commissioners, Mike O’Rielly and Ajit Pai, signaled Monday they oppose the proposal. O’Rielly called it a “spending spree,” and Pai decried the tax increase it would require.

“Last July, the Commission had the opportunity to enact bipartisan, student-centered E-

Rate reforms,” Pai said in a statement. “Instead, it adopted a plan with numbers that didn’t come close to adding up and promised outside groups a massive post-election tax increase.”

The FCC proposal to improve Internet connections in schools aligns with President Barack Obama’s ConnectED intitiative, which supports equitable access to classroom technology.

“We applaud the FCC’s continued efforts to help level the playing field so that all students have access to fast broadband, giving them the best chance to succeed in the global economy,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital ed.

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