Broadband basics for back to school

Broadband basics for back to school
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It’s September and the new school year is underway. Across the country, students are filing into their new classrooms and meeting their new teachers. They are also getting ready for something familiar in education — and that’s homework.

What is new about homework, however, is that it now requires internet service. Today, seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires online access. But data from the Federal Communications Commission, where I work, consistently shows that one in three households does not subscribe to broadband. Where those numbers overlap is the homework gap.

According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, the homework gap is real. By their count, it affects 12 million students across the country. The Pew Research Center also has done the math on the homework gap and determined that as many as one in five teens are unable to complete regular homework assignments, usually because they lack a high-speed internet connection at home.

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But statistics like these do not tell the whole story. There are homework gap stories from rural areas and urban areas across the country that demonstrate how too many students struggle to get the connectivity they need for nightly schoolwork. In my travels for the FCC, I’ve seen kids in Texas who rely on wi-fi at fast-food restaurants to do their homework night after night. I’ve met with kids in Pennsylvania who rely on an elaborate patchwork of visits to the homes of friends and relatives to get online for nightly schoolwork. I’ve also spoken with a high-school football player in New Mexico who did his homework after games and at night in the pitch-black of the school parking lot because it was the only place he could reliably get a signal to go online.

These kids have grit. But it shouldn’t be this hard. Solving the homework gap may not be easy but it’s worth the effort. After all, digital skills are required in so many jobs today. Down the road it’s hard to imagine any aspect of our economy that does not require facility with technology. So, school-aged kids without broadband access are not only unable to complete their homework and keep up in school, they enter the labor market with a serious handicap.

We need to do something about it. Fixing this problem starts with smart infrastructure policy to get broadband in more places, especially in rural areas. But we need to go beyond deployment and think about affordability.

The FCC has not only failed to make this connection, it has rolled back universal service programs designed for low-income households that could be used to boost student access to broadband. As a result, in a recent report the Government Accountability Office called on the FCC to think anew about policies to help with the homework gap. It’s time for the FCC to make this effort a priority.

While we’re at it, we need to acknowledge that if students have internet access at home for schoolwork, that’s only part of the equation. They also need it in their classrooms for modern education.

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Today, in classrooms across the country, broadband is available thanks to an FCC program called E-Rate. E-Rate supports schools and libraries in every state by offering low-cost connections to high-speed internet services. It’s a little-known program that got its start in the dial-up era thanks to the foresight of Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It’s now the largest program we have supporting educational technology. As a result, E-Rate has become a critical part of ensuring digital learning opportunities are available to students in both rural and urban communities nationwide.

However, the FCC has an ongoing proceeding that could jeopardize the E-Rate program and limit its reach across the country. To understand why requires a bit of background. At present, the FCC sets aside funds to guarantee their use for schools and libraries that apply for E-Rate support. But the agency has an unnecessary proposal on the table that would force E-Rate to compete for resources with other universal service programs at the FCC, like efforts to support rural telemedicine.

Having students and teachers slug it out for funds with health-care providers makes no sense. It would only unleash a universal service hunger games that won’t make it any easier for classrooms to get the broadband they need. That’s why the FCC should terminate this proposal now, as the school year gets underway.

With back to school season in swing, we need policies that leave no child offline. To do this, it’s time for the FCC to make broadband access for students a true priority — both outside and inside the classroom.

Jessica Rosenworcel serves as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.