Education technology leaders are disappointed that the Federal Communications Commission voted this week to put the kibosh on a plan educators say would have helped schools connect students—particularly in rural areas—with wireless internet.
The agency, which oversees the federal E-rate program, decided to stop allowing schools to acquire so-called EBS wireless licenses, which schools can use to offer students in rural areas broadband access, to make up for the fact that they may not have an internet connection at home.
Thousands of schools already have such licenses, and they would be able to keep them under the change. But no additional schools will be able to purchase these licenses. Instead, telecommunications companies will bid for them.
The FCC says that will help spread high speed connectivity to more people, especially those in rural areas.
But the move—which was approved on a party-line vote and opposed by Democrats on the commission—runs counter to advice from the U.S. Department of Education. The agency had urged the FCC to keep allowing schools to purchase the licenses to address the so-called “homework gap,” the digital divide between students who have access to technology at home to do schoolwork and those who don’t. The agency sent a letter urging the commission to allow schools to remain eligible for the licenses so students could do things like enroll in online computer science classes, or take advantage of online college mentoring.
And Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner, noted that the program has enabled “some truly promising efforts to ensure online access for students” in communities like Albermarle County, Va.; Marquette, Mich.; and Desert Sands, Calif. She said the decision “turns [the FCC’s] back on the schools and educational institutions.”
The Consortium for School Networking is also unhappy with the change.
“The FCC’s vote is a loss for teachers and students,” said Keith Kruger, CoSN’s CEO, in a statement. “This is especially true for learners in rural communities who are consistently passed over in favor of purely commercial interests. Today’s action continues that unfortunate trend.”
Also on the FCC’s agenda: Taking a second look at changes to the portion of the E-Rate program that delivers wireless hotspots to classrooms, school libraries, and other learning spaces. When the E-Rate underwent a major makeover in 2014, the program took on a new formula, giving states $150 per student to update classroom connectivity. The FCC is asking whether the education community wants to keep that same formula in place, or make changes to it.
CoSn’s take? The organization strongly supports the current formula but would love to see the system revamped to allow the program’s resources to go to delivering Wifi on school buses in sparsely populated rural areas, and for cyber security.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.