Ed-tech advocates say increasing the federal eRate cap is essential for U.S. students’ success.
Inadequate internet connectivity is more than an inconvenience to teachers and students—it has the capacity to limit the educational and economic potential of more than 52 million students in more than 113,000 schools across the nation, according to ed-tech stakeholders.
During an Aug. 12 briefing, John Harrington, CEO of eRate consulting firm Funds For Learning, said President Obama’s proposed ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband within five years. Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize the existing eRate program to make that goal a reality.
Making sure that 99 percent of U.S. students have access to internet with speeds of at least 100 Mbps and up to 1 Gbps would mean that internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity in schools, Harrington said.
(Next page: What does 99 percent of U.S. students mean, exactly?)
But what does it look like to supply 99 percent of the nation’s students with high-speed broadband internet connections? That 99 percent translates to 52.2 million students in 113,047 schools. The demand for eRate support has nearly tripled since the program’s 1996 inception, with spending skyrocketing from $15/student to $50/student in 2013, according to Funds For Learning data.
And while most schools in the country are connected to the internet, capacity is limited.
“In an educational environment in which educational resources are being delivered, and students are accessing content, a room full of students staring at a ‘waiting to download’ dialogue box is simply unacceptable,” Harrington said.
The eRate program is underfunded, Harrington said, and this means that if demand continues as it is now without a funding increase, as early as 2014, there will be no internet access support for 47 percent of schools in the U.S. By 2015, 71 percent of schools will be eliminated from receiving any eRate support for broadband internet connections.
Harrington speculated that if the eRate funding cap is raised, increased funds may be reallocated from other Universal Service Fund (USF) programs. Another alternative would be to increase the standard USF usage fee paid by telecommunications service providers, which some companies collect from customers under a “Universal Service” line item on customer bills.
“We want our children to be 21st century citizens, but we also want them to be competitive in the marketplace. … Our children have to be connected,” said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer in Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Public Schools.
“The concept of ‘connected’ has really evolved significantly over the last 15 years,” Abshire said. “The internet lets students and teachers use information and content that is current. A textbook does not provide current content—it is probably developed four to five years before it hits our classrooms. Our students must be connected to the most current resources.”
As online assessments become more prevalent in classrooms, reliable broadband internet connections are a necessity. A spotty internet connection impacts an online testing environment, which in turn makes it difficult for educators and administrators to ascertain whether testing results are the result of the testing environment or an individual student’s lack of knowledge.
“These children are connected in every piece of their lives,” Abshire said. “For them to have to come to school and power down is really a disservice to our learning.”