Equity & Diversity Q&A

‘Homework Gap’ and Lifeline Vote: Q&A With FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel

By Benjamin Herold — March 18, 2016 4 min read
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Two weeks ahead of a momentous Federal Communications Commission vote to expand the federal Lifeline program to include subsidies for broadband service for low-income families, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel addressed the annual CUE conference on educational technology, then spoke with Education Week by telephone.

Her message: children who lack reliable broadband Internet access at home are falling behind, and the FCC wants to help.

“There was a time when access to broadband was a luxury. No more. And nowhere is that as clear as it is in education,” Rosenworcel said in her conference address.

For more than a year, the commission’s three Democrats have been pushing to overhaul the Lifeline program, which currently provides subsidies for voice telephone services. A proposal circulated by Chairman Tom Wheeler, which calls for giving eligible families the option to use the program’s $9.25-per-month subsidy for standalone broadband service or bundled voice and data-service packages, is expected to receive a vote on March 31. The plan is expected to pass, despite concerns from the commission’s two Republican members about the potential for fraud and abuse.

In addition Lifeline reform, Rosenworcel said she also wants to see the FCC adopt other strategies to help close the ‘homework gap’ (so called because of some students’ struggles to get online to do Internet-based homework.) Among them:

  • Expanding free public Wi-Fi by reserving more slices of the broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband.
  • Helping with outreach to ensure that eligible families with school-aged children take advantage of potential Lifeline reform to access broadband.
  • Identifying and supporting innovative local programs that promote broadband access.

Following is a rundown of Rosenworcel’s conversation with Education Week, edited for length and clarity:

A recent survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that nearly all low-income families have some access to the Internet, but that many are limited to connecting via mobile devices such as smartphones. Why do you believe it’s important that these families transition to broadband?

What we want to see is that all kids can move from being consumers of Internet content to creators. While mobile devise are useful and helpful, I don’t think any parent would choose that to be the only device their child has to do homework, research and write papers, or apply for scholarships and jobs.

What makes you confident that a $9.25-per-month subsidy will be enough to get families to switch from mobile to broadband access?

My hope is that as we modernize and update the Lifeline program, we can provide more opportunities for broadband access. That can come through smartphones with Wi-Fi chips or that have tethering capabilities, so they can be used as wireless hotspots in conjunction with a computer. We have to be in a position to continually study the changes we make and fine-tune them over time.

Should schools be assigning so much online homework if kids don’t have access at home?

There are hard issues of equity that come up in digital education. But I think it’s important to not just dismiss [the need to get more students online] and suggest that there be less homework that requires online access. It’s important in the immediate sense, about kids doing homework, but it’s also about developing skills for the new digital economy.

Will a third-party verifier to determine families’ eligibility for the new Lifeline program be enough to a) prevent the type of fraud and abuse we’ve seen in the past, and b) keep program costs in check?

The national verification through a third party is absolutely essential. We have auditing as well. And for the first time, we’re talking about putting this program on a specific budget [of $2.25 billion per year.] I think the combination of those things will make a difference.

Do you support a budget cap for the program?

I think it’s important to have internal controls and a budget if you develop a program like this, just as it’s important to monitor [that budget] over time to make sure it’s the right size.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center survey also found that discount-broadband programs such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials are reaching relatively few low-income families. Are telecommunications companies doing enough to help solve this problem?

I think solving the homework gap is going to take a lot of different creative efforts. The programs we see industry developing are important, efforts to deploy more Wi-Fi are important, efforts to loan out wireless hotspots [as in the New York City library system] and equip school buses [as in Coachella, Calif.] are important...We have to take an “all of the above” approach. I appreciate that some [companies] have put programs into the marketplace. I hope we can study them and figure out what steps are the most effective.

If Lifeline reform passes, what changes might schools hope to see, and when might they expect to see them?

It is my hope that we will see some changes within the next year. The sooner the better. Wireless and wireline companies that offer broadband will have the ability to advertise this service, and it’s my hope that we can start encouraging those providers to contact educational authorities so educators are aware the programs exist and can encourage households with school-aged children to sign up.

Photo: Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes her seat before the start of their open hearing and vote on Net Neutrality last year in Washington.--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.