On November 17, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed a $1.5 billion permanent increase in the annual E-rate spending cap, as well as a series of policy changes designed to give schools and libraries more options to purchase affordable high-speed internet connections. The proposal is the latest step in a plan to modernize and expand the E-rate program so that 99 percent of the nation’s students will have access to high-speed internet connections in their schools and libraries within five years. The FCC is expected to vote on the proposal on December 11.
“Almost two-thirds of American schools cannot appropriately connect their students to the twenty-first century,” Wheeler said in a conference call with reporters. “Basic connectivity is now inadequate connectivity.”
If adopted, Wheeler’s proposal would raise the E-rate annual spending cap to $3.9 billion. To pay for the increase, Wheeler would raise the fees that a consumer or business pays on their telephone bills by about 16 cents a month or $1.90 a year, an amount the FCC characterized as “less than a cup of coffee” in a fact sheet on the proposal. “While the impact on consumers will be small, the impact on children, teachers, local communities and American competiveness will be significant,” the fact sheet notes.
According to the FCC, schools and libraries across the geographic and socioeconomic spectrum have “significant” work to do to meet long-term high-speed internet targets. For example, 68 percent of all school districts report that not a single school in their district can meet these targets. Additionally, 41 percent of rural public schools and 31 percent of suburban and urban public schools lack access to fiber networks sufficient to meet modern connectivity goals for digital learning. Even schools in affluent areas struggle to meet speed targets, with only 39 percent meeting the goal, compared to only 14 percent of schools in low-income rural and urban areas.
Wheeler’s proposal follows FCC action in July to target $1 billion annually to expand Wi-Fi connections in the nation’s schools and libraries. At the same time, the FCC took several steps to make E-rate dollars go further, including increasing transparency on how they are spent and what prices are charged for E-rate services.
Released on the same day as Wheeler’s proposal, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, finds that African American, Latino, low-income, and rural students are more likely to be in schools with slow internet access (10 Mbps or less) than their peers and less likely to be in schools with high-speed broadband internet (100 Mbps or more) needed for digital learning.
“The connectivity gap highlighted by the report stands in the way of our students’ academic success, and the nation’s economic prosperity,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Chairman Wheeler’s plan would bring today’s schools out of the internet dark age and into the digital age. I urge the FCC to increase funding for E-rate as proposed by Chairman Wheeler because the only way to close the achievement gap is to close the connectivity gap.”
The report, Schools and Broadband Speeds: An Analysis of Gaps in Access to High-Speed Internet for African American, Latino, Low-Income, and Rural Students, was authored by Dr. John B. Horrigan, a leading authority on broadband adoption and use. It represents a first-of-its-kind analysis of students’ access to high-speed broadband along racial, income, and geographic lines. Highlights from the analysis include the following:
- Students in heavily minority schools are half as likely to be in schools with high-speed internet as students in heavily white schools.
- Low-income studentsare twice as likely as affluent students to have slow internet access at their schools.
- Students in remote rural America are twice as likely as urban/suburban students to have slow internet access at their schools.
“The analysis findings shine a light on the critical importance of providing students with more access to updated technology regardless of race, income, or zip code,” said LEAD Commissioner and Founder and CEO of Common Sense Media Jim Steyer. “We applaud Chairman Wheeler for committing to close the rural fiber gap to achieve connectivity targets for high-speed internet. We also call on the FCC to close the gaps in access among low-income students and communities of color to bridge the digital divide among all students.”
According to the analysis, 2.75 million low-income students either lack access to high-speed internet or are disproportionately represented among students with slow internet access. Also, students in remote rural areas are half as likely as students in large suburban areas to have access to high-speed internet.
In writing the report, Horrigan merged and analyzed two datasets from 2011: (1) Common Core of Data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, and (2) the National Broadband Map, which is compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the FCC.
Schools and Broadband Speeds is available at http://99in5.org/resources-news/equity/.