The FCC Believes Schools ‘Need’ Wi-Fi

Kate Patrick Contributor
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The Federal Communications Commission says schools need broadband Internet access in order to offer students a complete educational experience. In a statement prepared this week, Acting Managing Director Jon Wilkins said the FCC funding for schools to pay for Internet access has reached the $1 billion mark for 2014.

“In recent months, we have been improving management of E-rate to speed approval of broadband expansion projects sought by schools and libraries across the country,” Wilkins said Tuesday. “And it’s working: E-rate funding will reach the $1 billion milestone this week for funding year 2014, twice as fast as any previous year in E-rate history.”

E-rate, also known as the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, provides funding for schools to help pay for their Internet access.

But most schools are still behind in this new digital age, Wilkins said.

“That’s why, in addition to our recent management improvements, the FCC is considering broader reforms that will enable schools and libraries to get the robust broadband they need,” Wilkins said.

In a recent blog post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described a visit to a local school in Fairfax, Va., where he came to the conclusion that the Internet is vital to a student’s learning experience.

“I saw students using laptops to access science lessons and collaborate in the cloud on year-end projects,” Wheeler said. “I saw English as a Second Language students using apps to help learn their new language at their own pace. I saw how Wi-Fi makes students more productive.”

Wheeler continued to explain the unfortunate state of America’s schools: “Nearly 60% of schools in America lack sufficient Wi-Fi capability to provide students with 21st Century educational tools. Far too many schools have no Wi-Fi at all.”

During a traumatic visit at a school in Oakland, Calif., Wheeler writes a gripping account involving students wandering in hallways holding their iPads in the air, struggling to get a signal so they can finish that last math assignment.

Will the students catch enough bars to enter the answer to 2+2? What if the bell rings and they have to rush to their next class? Will they get in trouble if the assignment is late?

From Wheeler’s point of view, Wi-Fi is no longer a convenience for schools, but a necessity. He seems to have forgotten the days when students used a pencil to scribble down the answer. Now they are forced to wait three minutes because the Internet connection is so bad the math app won’t load. So is a dependency on Wi-Fi increasing output, or is productivity decreasing?

But all these problems can be solved, Wheeler declares. We just need enough funding.

“I hope my colleagues will agree the cost of inaction is too high,” Wheeler said.

And how is this funding provided? By telecommunications services — or in other words, your phone bill. On its website, however, the FCC claims that consumers of telephone services (which is pretty much everybody) do not necessarily get billed for FCC funds.

“Some consumers may notice a ‘Universal Service’ line item on their telephone bills,” he said. “This line item appears when a company chooses to recover its USF contributions directly from its customers by billing them this charge. The FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to customers. Each company makes a business decision about whether and how to assess charges to recover its universal service costs.”

Basically, it’s up to telephone companies how much they give to FCC, and how much they charge consumers. Since FCC is pushing for more funding, should some consumers expect their phone bill to go up? Perhaps. Or perhaps a better question to ask is, do we really need the government to provide cheap Wi-Fi for schools, or is affordable Wi-Fi just a convenience?

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Kate Patrick