Democrats call for narrowing digital divide to help students during pandemic

Democrats call for narrowing digital divide to help students during pandemic
© Greg Nash

Ensuring all U.S. households have high-speed internet will help provide similar education opportunities to students at different income levels, particularly during the pandemic, Democrats said Thursday.

“Education justice involves giving everybody the same access to information,” Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Hillicon Valley: Dems seek to expand DHS probe after whistleblower complaint | DHS rejects House subpoena for Wolf to testify | Facebook rolls out new features for college students Democrats call for narrowing digital divide to help students during pandemic MORE (D-Fla.) said at The Hill’s Future of Education event.

The digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic “is about opportunity” and needs to be narrowed, Shalala told The Hill’s Steve Clemons.

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said in May that 93.7 percent of Americans have broadband access, though critics have argued the methodology the agency uses underestimates that access. NCTA - The Internet & Television Association has said 86 percent of Americans have access to four or more broadband providers.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D), who also spoke at Thursday’s event sponsored by Nokia and the Walton Family Foundation, said the U.S. needs a federal policy that aims to bring broadband access into every home.

“We need a national policy of 100 percent of our households online,” she said. “No individual, household, or community is going to have a fair shot at success in the 21st century without it.”

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Rosenworcel touted the E-Rate program, which provides discounts for telecommunications services, internet access and connections for low-income schools and libraries, and criticized the Trump administration for what she called a lack of ambition to get underprivileged children connected through FCC programs.

Margaret Spellings, who was secretary of Education during the George W. Bush administration, also expressed concern about the amount of attention to the educational divide by officials at all levels of government, saying “we are at risk of losing a generation of kids.”

“[COVID-19] will hurt them, our economy, and our prosperity,” she said. “So, we have got to pull up and intervene as quickly as possible.”

Mike Katz, executive vice president of T-Mobile for Business, explained how carriers are attempting to decrease the “homework gap” by providing free or low-cost broadband solutions to students.

He said T-Mobile's Project 10Million plans to offer free internet access to school districts and mobile hotspots to 10 million eligible households over the next five years.

One positive outcome of COVID-19, Katz said, could be its effect as a catalyst for “putting a significant dent in closing the digital divide.”

Updated on Sept. 11 at 4:08 p.m.