E-rate/Schools and Libraries Program
On March 19, Sens Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Jon Tester (D-MT) wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai making the FCC to take immediate action to ensure that all K-12 students in the U.S. have access to the internet so that they can continue learning while schools are closed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On June 22, Chairman Pai wrote back saying, "The FCC aims to enable [the] transition to remote learning.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says that while the FCC's hands are tied when it comes to applying E-rate schools and libraries funding to remote learning during the pandemic, there are billions of dollars that could already be applied to that purpose Congress has already allocated and the FCC is working on getting educators to spend on education tech. Chairman Pai said he understood the frustration, and had asked Congress to clear away that statutory language impediment in the meantime.
All five Federal Communications Commissioners testified at a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing. Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said the hearing was an opportunity for Commissioners to discuss what more can be done to expand broadband access and digital opportunity for all Americans.
Far too many Americans are cut off from access to affordable high-speed Internet even as more of our core systems go digital. Unchecked, the result will be an America even more unequal than the one we see today. The United States has failed in the equitable delivery of this public good. The disparity will almost certainly lead to further inequity. No American should suffer the indignity of searching for Internet. Starbucks WiFi is not a social safety net.
Chairman Pai's Response to Senators Regarding Helping Students Maintain Connectivity During the COVID-19 Pandemic
On March 16, 2020, 16 senators wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai urging the FCC to use its emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home.
School districts are beginning to craft their strategies for what teaching and learning will look like for the 2020-21 academic year and beyond. Despite widespread frustrations with the downsides of remote teaching and learning, many teachers are seeing how online learning can make it easier to move students in the same class at different paces and provide one-on-one feedback for struggling students, when they’re not all in the same physical space.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the digital divide in an unprecedented way. As civil rights leaders and a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, we are calling on our nation’s leadership to enact a robust connectivity plan to address the immediate and future needs of marginalized communities. An astonishing 34 percent of Black adults, 39 percent of Latino adults, and 47 percent of those on tribal lands do not have a home broadband connection. This compares with the 21 percent of White adults who do not have broadband at home.
Having high-speed access, a functional computer and the requisite tech skills are imperative if we expect equitable learning outcomes. The issue is equally problematic for the worker who cannot work at home because her only device is a phone or the faith leader who cannot reach his congregation because he does not have the tech skills required to do so. There are several reasons for lack of home access. The greatest, by far, is cost.
Educators to Senate HELP Committee: Distance Learning Dollars, Equity, Are Keys to Reopening Schools
Educators told the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pension (HELP) Committee on June 10 that access to technology is key to reopening schools in the new normal of COVID-19 and they could use some help in the form of government dollars. John King, former Education Secretary under President Barack Obama, said that before COVID-19, 79% of households had broadband versus only 66% of black households and 61% of Hispanic households.
More than 9 million students still don’t have the high-speed home Internet required for online learning. One hopes the recent attention on the home Internet digital divide will be a call to action for our government and society that results in real change. But given that we can’t look to the telecom industry to solve this problem, what can be done?