Bad Connection

Obama wants to bring better broadband to schools. But how will he pay for it?

President Obama is shown digital learning programs during a visit to Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013.

President Obama is shown digital learning programs during a visit to Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

If you visit one of the public schools in Mooresville, N.C., you can get a glimpse into what the classroom of tomorrow might look like. A high-speed broadband network, personalized software, and laptops for every student allow each member of the class to learn at his or her own pace while teachers receive real-time feedback about their learners’ progress. That’s why President Barack Obama went to Mooresville in early June to launch a new initiative called ConnectED, which aims to bring similar next-generation connectivity to classrooms across America in the next five years.

“In an age when the world’s information is just a click away, it demands that we bring our schools and libraries into the 21st century,” Obama declared in his speech at Mooresville Middle School. “We can’t be stuck in the 19th century,” he said, referring to the sad state of broadband connectivity at most of America’s schools. It’s a great idea. But Obama’s proposal leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The biggest unknown is perhaps the most important: funding. How the money is spent and where it comes from will determine not only whether the program meets its benchmarks but also whether it really helps ensure that “every child in America’s classrooms has access to the fastest Internet and the most cutting-edge learning tools.”

The administration has indicated that it will let the FCC figure out those details. ConnectED would be part of the commission’s E-Rate program, which provides subsidies to broadband providers to offer discounted service to schools and libraries. E-Rate, in turn, is part of the Universal Service Fund, which administers several programs to bring better access to telecommunications services across the country, especially in low-income, rural, insular, and high-cost areas.

In the past two decades, E-Rate has helped connect thousands of schools and libraries, but the program is now struggling to meet growing demand. Currently, most of the schools that receive E-Rate funding have connection speeds that are similar to those of the average home broadband user—a far cry from what they need to support large numbers of students using the next generation education applications being developed for classrooms. (It’s an even farther cry from ConnectED’s stated goal of providing 99 percent of America’s schools and libraries with minimum speeds of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and a target of 1 Gbps by 2018.) In fact, in a survey of E-Rate subsidized schools, nearly 80 percent reported that they did not even have the bandwidth to meet their current needs, let alone to account for future growth. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said recently, “The problem now is not connection, it’s capacity.”

One challenge is that the program needs to ensure that schools upgrade to technology that won’t become obsolete in just a few years, like cable or wireless. Fiber is the only option that remains largely future-proof: It’s already capable of gigabit speeds and more readily scalable than other technologies to meet future demands.

The FCC should also carefully consider who would be the best stewards of E-Rate dollars. Large phone companies haven’t always proven themselves reliable in that regard, charging some schools up to 325 percent more than they charged others in the same region for essentially the same services. And the cable companies don’t even think gigabit speeds are necessary (a convenient perspective when your service relies on technology that is incapable of actually achieving those speeds). In reality, projects like Google Fiber and community networks in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lafayette, La.; and Santa Monica, Calif.; where cities have invested in fiber infrastructure that can then be leveraged by area school districts, tend to have the fastest speeds—and these sorts of alternative models should be supported. E-rate ought to be used primarily to support substantial upgrades to infrastructure—the high investment costs that most broadband providers use to justify what they charge per month—and in return require that the network providers offer free or heavily discounted services to the schools..

So where will the money come from? President Obama’s remarks in Mooresville last Thursday and a supplemental fact sheet are notably light on details. There may be a temporary increase in the surcharge that you pay on your monthly phone bill (or bills, since it’s applied to both landline and mobile plans) to pay for the “one-time investment.” Commissioner Rosenworcel has also suggested that savings from recent reforms in the Lifeline program (which is part of the Universal Service Fund and provides discounts for telephone service for eligible low-income households) should be used to support her version of the proposal called E-Rate 2.0, while several news articles refer to “rechanneling” funds from Lifeline. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has even called for eliminating the Lifeline program entirely and moving all funds to the E-Rate program.

However, none of these ideas are very promising, and the call to reduce or eliminate Lifeline entirely is particularly troubling. Finding the money under the existing USF system will be difficult, and even a small increase on monthly phone bills that are already steadily rising could be problematic. And while the Lifeline program has faced some criticism, many of the problems have already been addressed by FCC reforms. Importantly, the program is currently underutilized by eligible users, and any restrictions in funding will hinder its ability to support broadband access in the future.

But ConnectED’s success will also depend on home access. Obama recognizes that students’ connectivity needs to extend beyond school walls. In his remarks, he imagines “a young boy with a chronic illness that means he can’t go to school [who now] can join his classmates via Skype or FaceTime and fully participate in what’s going on”—a scenario that would require robust connectivity at the student’s home as well as his school. Mooresville has addressed the problem of home broadband access by convincing a local, community-owned cable company to offer broadband access to students’ families for $9.99 a month, plus free Wi-Fi connections in parks, local libraries, and municipal buildings. If the Lifeline program were updated to support stand-alone broadband service, it could mean that low-income students could have broadband access in schools and other public areas, as well as complementary access at home. Simply moving funds from one Universal Service Fund program to another could cripple Lifeline’s ability to support existing service and make it much more difficult for it to support home broadband service in the future.

The ConnectED program has the potential to dramatically improve broadband access for schools across the country, but its goals won’t be achieved by tinkering at the edges of existing programs, or relying on models that have already proven inadequate.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.