Is America's education system falling behind in Internet access? According to the federal government, yes. While many institutions have access to basic Internet service, nearly 30 percent of schools and public libraries have Web connections that lag at speeds under 3 Mbps — below the government's definition of broadband.
On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission will kick off a new program to address the broadband shortfall in America's schools. The program promises to give educators access to an additional $1 billion in annual funding for technology that'll help schools and public libraries connect to the Web at speeds of 100 Mbps or even higher.
The new money represents a doubling of what the education sector has been getting every year to date, and is spurred by a White House initiative to promote broadband access in the classroom known as ConnectED. The boost will last two years, according to government officials, adding up to an injection of $2 billion. With those resources, schools will be able to sign up for faster Internet access, Web hosting and other benefits at a discount. But where does all that money come from?
In a word, you.
Take a look at your phone bill. On it, you'll probably notice a line item for something called Universal Service. Every phone customer in the country pays into the Universal Service Fund — indirectly, through their carriers — which helps extend telecommunications services to poor and rural communities, as well as to health care providers in those areas. In some ways, it's a huge redistributive project. But as we'll see, most of us wind up benefiting from it anyhow.
Broadband is a growing part of that effort. And it's taking on an increasingly larger role as technological literacy becomes a prerequisite to participating in the digital economy.
Internet access wasn't always included as a universal service priority. The whole idea behind universal service began in the early 20th century with Theodore Vail, who dreamed of connecting the whole country to AT&T's network of landline telephones. In Vail's day, universal service meant that AT&T would be available everywhere. Over the years, the phrase also came to mean telephone access more generally that came at predictable and affordable rates — because what modern economy can function without stable communications?
Of course, there was no Internet back then. By the 1990s, Congress had begun to realize the Web's potential — and in a big rewrite of the law that originally founded the Federal Communications Commission, policymakers instructed the FCC to look into expanding access to broadband. That turned into the $2.4 billion-a-year E-Rate program that'll disburse all that new money being announced this week for educational broadband.
While E-Rate has been pretty effective at connecting most schools to basic Internet, the FCC estimates only half of the program's funds actually go to high-speed broadband. Around 45 percent of schools and libraries say their connection speeds are too slow; 39 percent say the price of Internet prevents them from upgrading. E-Rate's newest push aims to fix that by installing 100 Mbps connections in educational facilities nationwide.
As the FCC's study implies, need is both relative and subjective. That has some critics of E-Rate complaining that the program's benefits are unevenly distributed. In an op-ed this week, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) claimed that New Hampshire residents "get just 25 cents back for every dollar they pay into the program" and that more populous, urban states such as New Jersey receive better returns on E-Rate.
This is where the move to reform E-Rate comes in. Some of this entails ending E-Rate discounts for outdated technologies like dial-up connections, but it also means a potential change in how E-Rate funds are disbursed. Last year, Pai suggested moving to a per-pupil approach where the amount of money a school might receive would be tied to the size of its student body. The idea has attracted criticism from experts who say the costs of Internet access scale differently compared to books or desks.
"While a bigger broadband pipe costs more overall, the price per megabit of capacity goes down (meaning that with more students, schools would get more 'bang for the buck' in terms of bandwidth)," wrote New America Foundation scholars Danielle Kehl and Lindsey Tepe in a blog post. For small rural districts, schools with enrollment shortfalls, and districts that have opted for smaller class sizes, this funding structure could prove challenging and ultimately increase inequities by making it more difficult for smaller schools to pay for adequate connectivity."
For his part, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has pledged to take a "business-like approach" to tweaking E-Rate, streamlining the application process for funds and taking other steps to make it better managed and more efficient. But whatever the program looks like in the future, broadband seems likely to play a dominant role.