Obama seeks legacy of Internet in every school

The Obama administration says it is on track to meet its goal of ensuring that every school has high-speed Internet within five years.

President Obama unveiled the broadband initiative in 2013 and urged the independent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand a program that subsidizes Internet access with the goal of wiring 99 percent of schools.

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“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why wouldn’t we have it in our schools?” Obama said. “Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced this spring that the agency would vote to modernize E-Rate rules before school starts back up in September. He said the FCC would likely discontinue E-Rate funding for outdated technologies, such as pagers and cooper telephone networks, and instead use that money to build out broadband and Wi-Fi.

“Our schools, libraries and our E-Rate program all need to evolve from Alexander Graham Bell’s technology to Internet protocol technology,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he would look at increasing the Universal Service Fund (USF) contributions for E-Rate modernization only if the FCC deems that more money is needed in the future. E-Rate is funded through fees on monthly telephone bills.

“Simply sending more money to the E-Rate program to keep doing business as it has been doing for the past 18 years is not sustainable,” Wheeler said.

The FCC has already reallocated $2 billion of unused E-Rate funds for school broadband projects, but some Democrats on Capitol Hill think more funding is needed.

“I strongly believe any update of E-Rate also must devote additional long-term support to the program,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said after Wheeler’s announcement. “Now is the time for the FCC to take advantage of this unique opportunity — to expand and update that program and provide it the necessary support to make sure that every child is connected to the transformative power of technology.”

Under a law passed in 1996, Congress directed telecommunications providers to contribute to the USF through the E-Rate program to subsidize the expansion of broadband infrastructure to schools and libraries around the country.

In March, Wheeler told the Council of Chief State School Officers that he planned to form a taskforce to examine how the government funds broadband development through the USF.

Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology within the Department of Education, said he supports the FCC’s efforts to look for existing funding before generating more through rate increases.

“If we just throw more money at an inefficient system, that’s not good,” Culatta told The Hill. “What the FCC has done makes a lot of sense. There are a bunch of process changes that can be made to shift money before they spend anymore.”

The FCC is also looking at changing how it prioritizes grant funding for schools.

Funding for Internet access has been provided in two tiers, which has been problematic for schools.

The FCC would approve grants to ensure that a school had high-speed Internet, but then wouldn’t allow them to seek aid to set up a wireless system. Changing the system for priority funding would allow schools to expand access within their walls to ensure more students can get on the Internet in their classrooms.

Culatta said he is also encouraging states and localities to apply for nearly $16 billion in federal formula funds to be used for investments in technology.

“Many federal formula and competitive grant programs allow funds to be used to support digital learning, even if the program statutes do not reference educational technology specifically,” Culatta wrote in a letter to administrators and districts around the country. “Coordination of federal program support can help maximize the impact of available resources.”

Culatta said that just because laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act don’t reference modern technology doesn’t mean those federal funds cannot be used to improve students’ access to technology.

Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget also included $200 million to help schools train teachers on how to better incorporate technology in their classrooms.

The administration has said higher Internet speeds would allow students to download up-to-date learning materials, stream educational videos and video chat with other students around the world to collaborate on projects.

The administration is also hoping the private sector continues to invest in technology for schools. U.S. companies have already committed more than $1 billion to the cause, according to the White House.

“There’s still more to do, and we need even more companies to get on board,” Obama said.