Investing in Telecommunications Infrastructure that Will Meet Educational Needs Both Today and Tomorrow

Today, the average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home. Only around 20 percent of our students have access to true high-speed Internet in their classroom and fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs. By comparison, in South Korea 100 percent of students are connected to high-capacity broadband.

Back in June, President Barack Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years. When the FCC launched its current proceeding seeking public comment on reaching that goal, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai emphasized that the “E-Rate should be about funding next-generation infrastructure that will facilitate digital learning…”

To meet the high-capacity digital learning needs of schools and libraries, the Benton Foundation believes that the FCC should create a short-term capital investment fund to focus on the deployment of a robust network infrastructure that will meet educational demands in the years to come. The E-Rate Program was designed in the 1990s to encourage the deployment of infrastructure and integration of the Internet in the classroom. However, the critical new applications needed for instructional support and assessment will not function on the T-1 technology of yesterday. The LEAD Commission states “[t]oday…we face a critical issue of insufficient capacity, not access.”

At Benton, we’ve read the advice that many stakeholders have shared with the FCC. There is broad agreement that a directed, short-term capital investment in infrastructure is an efficient strategy to meet these capacity demands. The Schools, Health & Libraries for Broadband Coalition (SHLB) points out that a one-time investment is an efficient strategy to assist schools and libraries with meeting their capacity needs because, “[t]he high up-front costs of deployment often stand in the way of schools and libraries being able to obtain access to high-capacity broadband networks.”

As best it can, the FCC should ensure that the E-Rate program is modernized to build a “future-proof,” cost-effective, upgradable, and fast infrastructure to provide educators with the tools they need for today and decades to come.

What will the return on these investments be? These investments will allow our teachers and students to take full advantage of 1) feature-rich educational devices that are increasingly price-competitive with basic textbooks and 2) educational software providing content aligned with college- and career-ready standards being adopted and implemented across the country.

Please visit Benton's ConnectED and Modernizing the FCC's E-rate Program page to track the discussion on how to best connect U.S. students to the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Amina Fazlullah is the Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation, working to address the communication needs of vulnerable communities. Since 2010 Ms. Fazlullah has led the Benton Foundation's work on reforming the Federal Communications Commission's universal service programs with a specific focus on the Lifeline and E-rate programs. She works on the Benton Foundation's efforts to develop and support important consumer protection policies which help vulnerable communities access, adopt and utilize broadband and voice services. Ms. Fazlullah is also responsible for the Benton Foundation's efforts around spectrum policy and children's online privacy.