FCC leader warns broadband gap may leave kids behind

At the 1776 Challenge Festival on Monday, Jessica Rosenworcel said families should have high-speed broadband access at home so their kids don't get left behind in the digital age.

Now that E-Rate has been overhauled, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission wants to propel other programs into the 21st century.

Jessica Rosenworcel, who was appointed to her position in 2012, said the E-Rate program has made it easier for schools and libraries to receive funding for high-speed broadband. In fact, every classroom in the United States is on track to have high-speed Internet access in five years.

But as more teachers assign homework on tablets and other smart devices, kids whose families don’t have fast Internet connections at home may get left behind, she warned during a talk Monday at the Challenge Festival, an edtech conference put on by Washington-based incubator 1776.

“Think about what it’s like to be a student in a household with no broadband,” she said, adding that roughly 5 million children across the country are in this predicament. “Just getting your basic schoolwork done is hard. Applying for a scholarship is challenging.”


She said these students fall into the “homework gap,” and in some remote areas they have to go to fast food restaurants after school to get their work done on borrowed Wi-Fi – while also munching on fries and slurping sodas. Managers of greasy spoons know when exams are coming up because kids cram into their establishments, “and those who can’t afford food and drink sit with their devices in the parking lot,” Rosenworcel said.

That’s why, she said, updates should be made to other long-stagnant FCC programs like Lifeline, which offers discounts to low-income residents on their phone service.

“We should modernize it,” she said of the 30-year-old program. “Instead of having the program support only voice service, we should allow participants to choose between applying the same support to either voice service or broadband or data service.”

Rosenworcel, a lawyer with a history of telecom expertise and mother of two children, said upgrading the program would be a “simple change.”

“It would both update the program and it would help bring more broadband to low-income households with school-aged children,” she said.


She added that there should also be more Wi-Fi access points available in public places and successful innovative programs should be imitated across the country.

“If they work, other communities should copy them,” she said, citing programs in New York, where the public library lends out wireless hotspots, and Coachella, California, where Wi-Fi routers were installed on school buses.

“We can do better than this,” she said of the current state. “Students who lack regular access to broadband are struggling to keep up, and their lack of access is holding our education system back.”

U.S. Educational Technology Director Richard Culatta also made a brief appearance at the Challenge Festival in the Lansburgh Theater, where he announced the launch of the Ed Tech Developer’s Tour.

A group of startups and federal, state and local officials will gather in 17 cities through October to discuss different aspects of the Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, which the Office of Educational Technology unveiled in April. The tour will stop next in Philadelphia on May 12.

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