From Places to People—Connecting Individuals to Community Anchor Institutions

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Digital Beat

From Places to People—Connecting Individuals to Community Anchor Institutions

Jon Sallet

Policymakers should help enable community anchor institutions to connect to their users wherever they are.

Let’s first think about education. The Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found that 14 percent of children between 3 and 18 years of age have no internet access at home. And, of students who do access the internet, approximately a quarter use library, community centers, and other public places, while nearly one-eighth of all K-12 students use the internet at coffee shops and other businesses that offer access. Indeed, lack of connectivity may not only disadvantage students but may also lead to a change in teaching techniques: Teachers are less willing to assign homework or projects relying on broadband in the home when even a relatively small portion of their students lack connectivity.

One short-term answer to the lack of in-home broadband can be found in libraries across the nation that are experimenting with the lending, not just of books, but of Wi-Fi hotspots. Dr. Sharon Strover has studied the New York Public Library’s Wi-Fi lending program, which is the oldest in the nation. She has concluded that such efforts “may have important roles for the constituencies lacking reliable access and the opportunity to spend more time learning the skills useful to navigating and exploiting the internet.” Libraries in other cities—including Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, Houston, Kansas City, St. Paul, Tulsa, and Bellingham, Washington—also have successful hotspot programs, and libraries in a handful of rural communities in Kansas, Maine, Texas, and Oklahoma, among others, are beginning to experiment with the technology.

In an article co-written with Brian Whitacre and Colin Rhinesmith, Strover found, based on studies of twenty-four rural communities in Kansas and Maine, that internet connectivity provided by libraries’ hotspot-lending programs aided users in connecting to “the broader information environment; for families, it proved immensely helpful for children’s education.” To this point, John Horrigan and Jason Llorenz have found that public libraries were the most common public Wi-Fi access point for African Americans and Latinos. Jon Peha and Ning Guan have concluded that library Wi-Fi use is growing more rapidly in areas with a higher proportion of African Americans, lower median incomes, and higher unemployment rates.

Schools have recognized the same need. At least 60 percent of schools surveyed by CoSN have adopted strategies to increase student broadband access outside of school, such as providing hotspots or helping students participate in provider-sponsored discounted broadband services. For example:

  • The public school district in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has lent mobile hotspots to students, providing internet access that is confined to appropriate sites.
  • Two school districts in Virginia have used TV white spaces to offer access to students without regard to their family income.
  • Approximately 3 percent of the schools have begun to offer Wi-Fi on school buses, and nearly 4 percent have stated that they are planning to in the near future. Proposed legislation would provide federal funding for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, giving students the ability to get online to study and do homework assignments while they’re on the bus.

In July 2019, the Government Accounting Office proposed that the FCC consider the “potential benefits, costs and challenges” of providing off-site wireless access to students using E-Rate funds. As the GAO noted, the FCC has already run pilot projects to test the concept and, as of the time of the report, had received two requests from school districts seeking funding for wireless connections to students. In the course of its analysis, the GAO confirmed that lower-income children are less likely to use the internet at home and that affordability was the main barrier. But, significantly, the GAO also parsed the suitability of using wireless connections available at other locations, including businesses like coffee shops or community centers, and found a series of reasons they are less impactful than in-home broadband, including the need for transportation, concerns about safety, the cybersecurity threats of using public Wi-Fi, and limited hours of availability.

There is no reason to wait any longer. Congress and the FCC should expand E-Rate to provide wireless access to students of lower-income families who do not have broadband at home. At current prices, $100 million would support the full cost of LTE service to between and two million and three million K-12 students. (Such efforts should be affordable given that the E-Rate program is currently running about $1.3 billion below its $3.9 billion budget cap.)

In addition, the possibility of lowering the cost of fixed broadband connections to K-12 students or to vulnerable populations (for example, for the purpose of providing health care) should be explored. For example, the aggregation of buying power by school districts might allow the subsidy of in-home broadband for educational uses by lower-income students at prices below normal residential retail rates.

Policymakers should recognize that the mission of community anchor institutions is to improve lives. Broadband is a key element in fulfilling that mission. Baltimore’s public school system has created a classroom in a community center to offer training in internet access. Librarians note that the provision of skills training is a natural fit with the historic missions of their institutions—offering a trusted space in which people of all ages can learn in the ways that best suit them. Thus digital equity efforts should include institutions trusted by the community, including community anchor institutions.

Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

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