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 lays 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.
“The National Broadband Plan is a 21st-century roadmap to spur economic growth and investment, create jobs, educate our children, protect our citizens, and engage in our democracy,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski during a March 16 hearing.
“It’s an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues.”
“Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan” has direct implications for education that are addressed in a 22-page package. The plan, compiled by the Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI) at the FCC, states that broadband can enable improvements in public education by facilitating the delivery of eLearning and online content, which can provide more personalized learning opportunities for students. Broadband also can facilitate the flow of information, helping teachers, parents, schools, and other organizations make better decisions tied to each student’s needs and abilities.
Modernizing the e-Rate
Since the e-Rate’s inception in 1998, it has helped ensure that 97 percent of public schools have internet access, with thousands of schools and libraries receiving billions of dollars during the program’s existence.
But the plan notes that “inadequate connectivity speeds and infrastructure issues are frequently reported, and bandwidth demands are projected to rise dramatically over the next few years.”
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.
Scott Weston, communications director for e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning, attended the hearing and noted the number of recommendations that were made regarding modifications to the e-Rate program.
“As Commissioner [Robert M.] McDowell noted, these are recommendations that will be discussed in great detail through the FCC’s rule-making process and Congressional action. And not every recommendation will eventually become reality,” he said. “I think the message for schools and libraries to take away from today’s announcement is to be prepared for possible changes to how e-Rate funding is requested and what it supports. But, these changes won’t come overnight. Months, and probably years, will pass before some of the recommended changes are made to the e-Rate process.”
However, Weston noted that some changes are in the process of being made.
“A potential short-term change is to raise the e-Rate funding cap to adjust it for inflation. This is something that the FCC may act upon without Congressional intervention. As the plan states, the e-Rate cap of $2.25 billion per year hasn’t been adjusted since the inception of the e-Rate program. This means that schools have less buying power today, in terms of e-Rate dollars, than they did in 1998,” he said.
The broadband plan proposes to update the e-Rate program to permanently enable schools to use e-Rate funding to give community members computer access during off-school hours. Last month, the FCC announced that it would change the e-Rate’s rules to allow this accommodation for the 2010-11 program year.
“Schools now have the option to permit the general public to use their internet connections whenever school is not in session,” noted Phoebe Yang, general counsel for OBI. “This allows adults to take digital literacy courses, unemployed workers to seek online job-search tools, and citizens interested in using internet-based government services to benefit [as well].”
The plan also proposes to let the e-Rate fund wireless connectivity to portable learning devices. Students and educators should be allowed to take these devices off campus so they can continue learning outside school hours, it explains.
Lucy Gettman, the National School Boards Association’s director of federal programs, said she was pleased with the plan’s potential.
“We are pleased that the national broadband plan recognizes the importance of strengthening the role of schools and libraries through the e-Rate program and other initiatives that provide 21st-century skills and prepare students and communities to be competitive in a global economy,” Gettman said.
“As technology initiatives become increasingly vital to education, we support the plan’s efforts to increase the cap for e-Rate and preserve the current eligibility structure of schools and libraries.”
Expanding online learning
The plan also recommends that the government support online learning, unlock the value of data to improve transparency, and modernize the educational broadband infrastructure.
“Broadband can be an important tool to help educators, parents, and students meet major challenges in education. The country’s economic welfare and long-term success depend on improving learning for all students, and broadband-enabled solutions hold tremendous promise to help reverse patterns of low achievement,” the plan states.
One barrier to realizing the full potential of online learning is that there is a limited pool of high-quality digital content that can be easily found, bought, accessed, and combined with other content to allow teachers to customize classroom materials to their students’ needs, the plan says.
To help eliminate this barrier, the plan suggests that the U.S. Department of Education (ED), with support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the FCC, establish standards to be adopted by the federal government for locating, sharing, and licensing digital educational content by March 2011. Those standards should be periodically revisited to ensure they are consistent with the needs of the educational community.
The federal government also should increase the supply of digital content available for learning, and Congress should consider taking legislative action to encourage copyright holders to grant educational digital rights of use, the plan says.
Another major barrier to online learning is that students often have trouble obtaining course credit for online classes, and teachers licensed in one state might not be able to teach online courses in another.
To address this concern, the plan calls on state accreditation organizations to change their course accreditation and teacher certification requirements to allow students to take more courses for credit online and permit more online instruction across state lines.
Common Sense Media Co-Founder and CEO James Steyer said the National Broadband Plan will go a long way to help parents and educators raise a generation of media-savvy and digitally responsible children.
“The plan, if instituted, will give millions of children and families in low-income and other underserved areas equal access to the information and opportunities of this digital age. With increased access comes an increased need to ensure kids everywhere are equipped with the tools and information they need to use broadband in smart, safe ways that will bring real improvements to their education and their economic futures,” he said.
To unlock the value of data and improve transparency, the plan recommends that ED encourage the adoption of standards for electronic educational records and develop digital financial data transparency standards for education.
“In every era, America must confront the challenge of connecting the nation anew,” said Blair Levin, executive director of OBI. “Above all else, the plan is a call to action to meet that challenge for our era. If we meet it, we will have networks, devices, and applications that create new solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”
Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association, said he commends the FCC for recognizing the importance of ubiquitous high-speed broadband access to the nation’s educational and economic health.
“While many education ideas are touched on, we encourage the FCC and Congress to focus on those most appropriate and direct to the core goal: improving broadband access to schools and students necessary for learning in this digital age, including especially the raising of the e-Rate cap,” he said.
But some FCC commissioners voiced concern over parts of the plan, and McDowell said he was troubled by some of the plan’s proposed regulations.
“I’m sure that the plan contains many ideas I can support, and further study of it will reveal such proposals in the days to come. At the same time, I would be remiss if I did not point out some ideas that give me concern,” he said.
McDowell noted that the plan’s recommendation to modernize the Universal Service Fund so that it supports broadband instead of regular telephone service would not do much good.
“Broadband deployment and adoption have flourished in the absence of such regulations. Not only do I doubt that such a reclassification would survive appeal, I don’t see how foisting a regulatory framework first devised in the 19th century would help a competitive 21st-century marketplace continue to thrive. But we will have plenty of time to engage in this debate,” he said.
He said he is also concerned with the recommendation to regulate fiber and other network elements.
“The plan implies that the Commission should mandate the unbundling of fiber and other network elements that have been deployed since the agency deregulated some of these components. As a result of that deregulation, fiber deployment has spiked in recent years,” he said. “Rather than reverse course, the Commission should ensure that any future actions will not create regulatory uncertainty and litigation risk that could scare away capital investment.”
About two-thirds of U.S. households have high-speed internet access now. Many people in the remaining one-third could get broadband service but choose not to, because they think it’s too expensive or because they don’t see a need for it. The FCC plan calls for increasing adoption rates to more than 90 percent of the population, in part by creating a Digital Literacy Corps to teach people how to use the internet.
When rural areas lack broadband access, it’s often because phone and cable companies haven’t found it worthwhile to invest in dragging high-speed lines to remote places that would have few subscribers. One way the FCC hopes to expand broadband use is with wireless technology.
The wireless industry currently licenses about 500 megahertz of the wireless spectrum. In a move similar to adding more lanes to a freeway, the FCC hopes to free up another 500 MHz over the next decade, both for licensed purposes and for uses that don’t require a license, such as Wi-Fi networks.
The agency hopes to get roughly 120 MHz of that spectrum from broadcasters of free, over-the-air TV. It would allow broadcasters to unload frequencies they don’t need and share in the proceeds raised by auctioning those airwaves to wireless companies.
That proposal has run into fierce resistance from the National Association of Broadcasters, however. TV broadcasters already gave up more than 100 MHz of spectrum when they shut off analog signals last year and began broadcasting only in digital. Many say they plan to use their remaining frequencies to transmit high-definition signals, to “multicast” multiple channels, and to deliver mobile TV to phones, laptops, and cars.
Early reactions to the plan from the large phone and cable companies that dominate the U.S. broadband market were positive. US Telecom, a trade group that represents phone companies, praised the FCC for recognizing that “it will be through private sector investment and innovation that America’s broadband deployment goals will be met.”