Broadband access provides educational opportunities

Broadband access provides countless educational opportunities, FCC officials say.

Upgrading the federal e-Rate program to provide more connectivity to schools and libraries, removing the barriers to online learning so that more students can take advantage, and unlocking the power of data to personalize learning and improve school decision-making are three key recommendations to help education prosper under the National Broadband Plan that will be released next month, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) officials said during a Feb. 18 broadband meeting.

Meanwhile, the FCC took its first step toward changing the e-Rate’s rules to make it a better vehicle for delivering broadband access to all citizens: A Feb. 18 FCC order allows school systems to let members of their community use e-Rate funded infrastructure after school hours for the 2010 program year.

At the agency’s broadband meeting, officials revealed what they called “working recommendations” for the broadband plan in sectors such as education, health care, government, security, and job training.

The recommendations only address the “national purposes” section of the plan, and few details were made available. Still, they provide another glimpse into the agency’s thinking as educators await the release of the full plan next month.

High-speed internet access has integrated students into the digital world and has expanded educational opportunities for students, said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Yet, while 97 percent of public elementary and secondary schools have internet access, connection speeds are largely insufficient, the FCC noted.

Led by Steve Midgley, the FCC’s director of education, members of the agency’s education team who are working on the National Broadband Plan outlined three key areas of emphasis for the plan.

One is to upgrade the e-Rate to increase its flexibility and improve the program’s efficiency. The FCC hopes to set national goals for school and library connectivity, support more flexibility in the development of infrastructure, and distribute funding for internal connections to more program recipients. (It was unclear from the Feb. 18 meeting how the FCC plans to achieve this last goal.)

The FCC also intends to streamline the e-Rate application process, index the cap to inflation, and foster innovation through pilot programs that would award some e-Rate funding competitively. Many of these changes are proposed in a bill to overhaul the e-Rate introduced by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., earlier this month.

Community colleges in particular lag in offering high-speed internet connections, the FCC said: Just 16 percent of community college campuses have high-speed broadband connections, compared with more than 90 percent of research universities. Markey’s bill would allow community colleges to benefit from the e-Rate as well.

Another area of focus for the broadband plan is supporting and promoting online learning.

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is an example of the potential that broadband offers for students who do not have access to Advanced Placement classes in their brick-and-mortar schools, or for students who want to take a specialized course not often offered.

FLVS simply would not be possible without a robust broadband backbone, the FCC’s education team said.