Cutting-edge educational gadgets, apps and games for students were in ample supply at SXSWedu in Austin this month.
But there was little mention of how meaningless the digital deluge is for millions of students who lack access to high-speed Internet at home.
Policymakers, entrepreneurs and Internet service providers haven’t figured out how to connect these students so they can keep up with their plugged-in peers. Appetite for change on the Federal Communications Commission hasn’t translated into action. Private companies, nonprofits, cable and wireless providers are tackling the problem, sometimes teaming up to put hotspots in the hands of students who need the Internet to do their homework or write research papers. On Monday, President Barack Obama boasted that his administration has invested $25 billion to encourage investment in high-cost and rural broadband.
So far, however, the reach of all of these efforts has been limited.
The FCC’s most recent broadband progress report found that 55 million Americans lack access to advanced broadband. More than half of people living in rural areas are among them. EveryoneOn, a non-profit working to provide families with high-speed, low-cost Internet access, estimates that one in four U.S. households lack Internet access.
But schools keep rolling out new education technology programs, handing out tens of thousands of laptops and tablets that are useless to some students at home. Family income and a lack of education about online educational opportunities are barriers to connectivity, advocates and service providers say. And it can be hard for districts to track down families that aren’t connected.
“This issue sometimes gets overlooked as we’re all racing toward the next stage of education technology,” EveryoneOn CEO Zach Leverenz said. “We can’t ignore it much longer.”
More than half of teachers say that all or almost all of their students have access to digital tools at school, but just 18 percent said the same is true for their students at home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.
The FCC launched an effort in 2013 to get almost every student in every classroom connected to high-speed Internet. In 2014, the commission successfully passed an overhaul of the E-Rate program, a federal Internet subsidy for schools and libraries.
Now, Democratic commissioners say that solving the “homework gap” is the logical next step. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, wrote in an editoriallast year that the “homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide.”
“But it is within our power to bridge it, help kids get their schoolwork done and expand Internet access,” she said. “We should go for it.”
In December, the FCC voted to raise E-Rate’s $2.4 billion funding cap by an extra $1.5 billion — a huge victory for the schools and libraries dependent on the discounts offered through the program. On the same day, Democrats said they’d like to retool the FCC’s Lifeline program to provide broadband access as well as telephone service to low-income families.
“There are three votes up here for that,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said at the time, suggesting that an effort to modernize the program would pass on a party-line vote over the objections of Republican commissioners who have slammed the Lifeline program as wasteful.
“We ought to make sure that it covers broadband,” Wheeler said.
But more than three months later, the effort hasn’t advanced much as the commission has moved on to other issues, including net neutrality.
Advocates say the federal government has a responsibility to step in.
“At the end of the day, it’s a provider issue, it’s an FCC issue and I think it’s an issue of national urgency,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a national centercreated by Congress that works on advancing teaching and learning through technology.
Leverenz wants federal regulators to require that providers extend broadband to chronically underserved areas. Providers need a nudge to build out to these places, he said.
“You might argue that the cost of serving those populations is too great, but we need to have those conversations,” he said.
Last month, commissioners approved petitions from two cities — Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C. — to build and expand their own high-speed broadband networks. The move effectively overrode state laws prohibiting such practices. Advocates hope more rural students and students without home connectivity will get connected as a result. And while the FCC’s decisions only apply to those two cities, it could encourage other communities to file for similar exemptions. The White House saidMonday that it will host a Community Broadband Summit in June.
At SXSWedu in Austin, Texas, this month, there was little talk among conference speakers of getting students connected at home, though it came up occasionally in question-and-answer sessions.
“It seems like all of the sessions aren’t geared toward [home connectivity], but whenever there’s an opportunity for Q&A, everyone wants to ask about it,” said Zak Malamed of the advocacy group Student Voice, who was among the thousands who flocked to Austin.
Jon Phillips, managing director for Dell Global Education, said it’s an oversight in many of the conversations at SXSWedu. Everyone wants to talk about the possibilities of education technology and it’s often assumed that students have the necessary access to reap the benefits, he said.
What’s more, private sector software vendors typically don’t design their products to circumvent home connectivity issues, Leverenz said.
McGraw-Hill Education’s Chief Digital Officer Stephen Laster agreed that home connectivity is underaddressed, but said his company tries to develop education software that works on mobile devices and even offline for students who aren’t connected at home.
Cable providers have also been working to get low-income families connected at a low cost. For example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program allows these families to buy home Internet service for about $10 a month. They can also buy refurbished computers for about $150.
The program has connected more than 450,000 families so far, according to Comcast’s recent progress report.
Families with children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch can participate in the program. Previously, participants couldn’t have any debt with Comcast if they wanted to participate. But the company recently changed its criteria, forgiving families with about a year of debt. People interested in getting connected through the program have to live in Comcast’s service area and can’t be existing Comcast customers because the program focuses on “non-adopters,” said spokesman Charlie Douglas.
“If you’re currently a customer, then you’ve already crossed the digital divide,” he said.
An estimated 2.6 million people in the U.S. are eligible for the program, Douglas said. Internet Essentials serves about 17 percent of that population, with higher concentrations in cities like Denver and Seattle, he said.
But some have lambasted the company from profiting off disadvantaged families while providing them with what’s considered slower than normal Internet access.
And Leverenz said the program is laudable, but it isn’t inclusive. His nonprofit offers a similar program with cable providers called Connect2Compete, also costing families about $10 a month and featuring similar eligibility criteria.
“But we felt it was a little too restrictive to be effective,” he said, so they started partnering with wireless providers outside of Connect2Compete to get families connected, offering services based on median income and zip code.
Districts are also innovating on their own. For example, Coachella Valley Unified School District in California issued tablets to nearly 19,000 students in 2013, paid for by a bond measure approved by voters. A vast majority of the students were living in poverty and didn’t have access to the Internet at home, so the district put Wi-Fi routers on school buses and parked them throughout the district at night, allowing students to access the signal at home.
The effort earned recognition from Obama last November.
Another solution comes from Kajeet, a company that sells districts mobile hotspots. Kajeet works with about 56 school districts, but only about a fifth of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in any given district get connected through the devices, spokeswoman Linda Kerr said.
Kerr said helping families who aren’t connected can be difficult because it’s hard to track down families who aren’t on the grid.
“It’s hard to find people who aren’t connected, so it’s hard to understand the extent of the problem,” she said. “Everyone is going to be forced to face this issue relatively soon … I think within the next one to two years, districts are going to have a huge problem.”
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