The National Broadband Plan aims to bring broadband internet to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020

More students should have access to online learning, and the federal e-Rate program should be more widely deployed and should embrace and encourage innovation, according to the National Broadband Plan, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled on March 16.

The plan laid out recommendations for ways to equip the country, including schools and libraries, with affordable broadband internet access—a necessity as education stakeholders work to ensure that all students are equipped for 21st-century careers. Unveiled after a year of intense deliberation among the FCC and various stakeholders, it aims to bring broadband internet to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020. Fourteen million Americans don’t have broadband access, even if they want a high-speed option, according to federal estimates.

Ultra high-speed connections—at least 1 gigabit per second, or 100 times faster than a typical broadband network—also would be made available at “anchor institutions” such as hospitals, libraries, and colleges, according to the FCC’s plan.

The FCC did not detail the cost of the broadband expansion, but commissioners have said auctioning portions of national airwaves would help fund the massive program. That money would add to the $7.2 billion allocated for high-speed internet in the economic stimulus package passed by Congress last year.

“The status quo is not good enough for America,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who mentioned the broadband plan’s potential for expanding the use of eBooks in education during his March 16 address. “If we don’t act, we are at risk.”

The federal broadband plan has direct implications for education that are addressed in a 22-page package. The plan recommends a set of rule-making goals for establishing minimum broadband connectivity for schools and libraries and prioritizing funds accordingly, while giving schools and libraries more flexibility to purchase the lowest-cost broadband solutions.

To realize the plan’s goals, the FCC on Sept. 23 voted to upgrade and modernize the federal $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours—a step that supporters and stakeholders say will help students and community members build important digital literacy skills.

The FCC also voted to let e-Rate participants use funds to connect to the internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including through existing state, regional, and local networks or by employing unused fiber-optic lines already in place. And the agency approved a pilot program that will support off-campus wireless internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. The pilot will explore the benefits that low-cost, accessible mobile devices can bring to students, including helping to close the technology access gap between children from affluent communities and those from economically disadvantaged areas.

A new analysis of Census data, released Nov. 8 by the Commerce Department, shows the need for a federal broadband strategy. The U.S. still faces a significant gap in residential broadband use that breaks down along incomes, education levels, and other socio-economic factors, even as subscriptions among American households overall grew sevenfold between 2001 and 2009.

What’s more, even when controlling for key socio-economic characteristics, the U.S. continues to confront a racial gap in residential broadband use, with non-Hispanic white Americans and Asian-Americans more likely to go online using a high-speed connection than African-Americans and Hispanics.