Thanks in major part to the efforts of FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the challenge of providing high speed Internet access to school districts across the country is being addressed. The E-rate 2.0 modernization order that was approved last year is making funds available not just for broadband connections between schools and the Internet, but for Wi-Fi access within schools to bring the Internet right to student and teacher devices. There is still work to be done in terms of streamlining the application process, updating the budgeting process, and possibly tuning the $150 per student allocation, but students in classroom throughout the country are now getting connected.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all students when they get home. According to the Pew Research Center, 30% of homes do not yet have broadband Internet access. This creates what Rosenworcel calls “The Homework Gap.” Here are more Pew statistics on what this lack of high speed Internet access means to education: 50% of teachers in low income districts say student access to the Internet is a problem; 60% of students are unable to complete their homework; 42% get a lower grade on their homework. To drive these statistics home, Rosenworcel recounts several stories about small towns, like Citronelle, Al, and Piconning, MI, where students visit the only restaurant in town that offers Wi-Fi, so they can do their homework. Students who cannot afford a snack or soda have to sit in the parking lot hoping the Wi-Fi signal stays strong enough to tap into.
To address the homework gap, Rosenworcel is proposing a three-phase solution. The first part is to extend a 1985 program called Lifeline, which was originally aimed at telephone service to low-income subscribers. The idea is to extend the program to include high speed data connections. The second part deals with reallocating licensed frequency bands, specifically those in the 600MHz TV band and the 5GHz home band for unlicensed use. The third part of the solution is to encourage more public hotspots. Rosenworcel draws attention to the example of NYC libraries that lend out hotspots to students on their library cards.
You can view Commissioner Rosenworcel’s ISTE 2015 talk captured on Periscope.