Opinion

FCC Misses Own Deadline to Help Close School Connectivity Gap

Despite decades of digital progress, millions of students in America will start school this month without internet connections that are fast enough to take full advantage of digital learning opportunities. To close the gap, hundreds of school districts have proactively requested funding from the nation’s E-Rate program to extend high-speed fiber to school classrooms all around the country. As of last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission had yet to approve a single vital fiber construction project. By failing to meet its Sept. 1 deadline for acting on applications, too many of our children will be left trying to learn the skills for tomorrow, using dial-up speeds of the past. And they will have left too many school leaders, governors and organizations like mine – who committed to closing the school connectivity gap — scratching our heads wondering why none of these promising projects are moving forward.

In 1996, the E-rate program was set up to bring affordable telecommunication and information services to schools and libraries. Through the Universal Service Administrative Company, or USAC, schools can apply for discounts of up to 90 percent to upgrade Internet access or to maintain and improve their broadband infrastructure. In 2014, E-rate was modernized and additional funding was made available to enabled schools to bring “future proof” high-speed fiber connections to every school building. Fiber connects our students to endless opportunities and prepares them for college and career readiness, but it’s only possible if the FCC’s program works as intended.

Last Saturday marked the deadline for the FCC to approve the next round of school funding through E-rate. In March, 347 school districts submitted “special construction” applications for funding, requesting nearly half a billion dollars for fiber construction in order to bring high-speed broadband to their schools. In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, sent last week, I highlighted this digital disconnect and asked the Chairman, who has made closing the digital divide his highest priority, to make closing this gap a priority too.

Here’s what we know:

•   Each of the 347 “special construction” project applications were competitively bid, and each proposed construction was the most cost-effective solution.

•   School districts requested $430 million in E-rate funding to build fiber optic-connections to their schools to support classroom learning

•   Twenty-three governors from across the country supported these projects by setting aside over $200 million in matching funds

•   Seventy percent of these projects are for rural and small-town schools

•   Instead of funding these fiber projects, the FCC has funded schools $17.4 million for voice  telephone lines that are incapable of accessing the Internet at anything faster than dial-up speeds.

Schools all across the country are eligible for E-rate funds. These funds have been designated for school upgrades that allow students to benefit from the great potential of digital learning. And by law, the nation’s neediest schools, those in high poverty areas, are first in-line to receive funding.

By failing to meet its own deadline, the FCC’s delays will have broad implications. Schools without high-speed broadband represent a loss for teachers who come in early and stay late to develop lesson plans and strategize on new and exciting ways to educate our kids. Schools without high-speed broadband represent a loss for local business and the people they employ as they search for a qualified workforce. And it’s a loss for rural communities who are counting on state and federal policymakers to provide modern tools and resources to keep pace with their suburban and urban counterparts.

Earlier this year, a coalition of education-technology organizations met with Chairman Pai to discuss these issues. We were pleased that the chairman, who has said he believes the E-Rate program is worth fighting for, promptly responded and directed USAC to take deliberate steps to make the process for approving school district applications more efficient. Sadly, if no school districts are approved by the September deadline then it would appear that there is some kind of digital disconnect in Washington.

At EducationSuperHighway our mission is simple: work with policymakers and decision-makers at local level to ensure that every public school in America can offer the promise of digital learning through high-speed broadband and upgraded fiber connectivity. We, alongside others, are doing just that. In 2012, 40 million students lacked high-speed broadband access. Today, that number is 6.5 million and by 2020 we hope to close the gap. But our success, which is truly the future success our kids, can only be achieved if government plays its part and funds – without delay or denial –schools that are ready to improve educational opportunities and their technology standards.

Our students deserve classrooms filled with high-speed learning opportunities, and our schools deserve an approval process that moves faster than dial-up speed. The government agrees and has set aside billions in funding to pay for it. It would be a shame if FCC failed to deliver on its promises.

Evan Marwell is the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, which is working to upgrade and bring high-speed broadband internet access to every public school classroom in America.

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