President Obama announced a new initiative today aimed at providing far better Internet connectivity for American schools. The ConnectED program would expand the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program—which currently subsidizes broadband connections for schools and libraries across the country—to substantially upgrade capacity to meet the demands of the new digital age.
At the moment, inadequate broadband connectivity is a major barrier for schools to actually take advantage of emerging educational technology and even to access existing resources. Almost 80 percent of the schools that currently receive E-Rate subsidies for broadband connections reported that they did not have the bandwidth to meet current needs—let alone support applications of the future being developed to revolutionize classroom learning. When E-Rate was established in 1996, only 14 percent of classrooms across the country had Internet connections, and the program is a major reason that the number has risen to 92 percent today. However, it’s clear that capacity constraints are now stifling schools’ ability to really take advantage of new online opportunities and educational innovation.
ConnectED’s goal is to connect 99 percent of America’s students in the next five years, providing schools and libraries with minimum speeds of 100 Mbps per 1000 students (and a target of 1 Gbps). Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has made similar calls for E-Rate to provide a 1 gigabit connection to every school in the country by the end of the decade, as have FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA). They’ve estimated that meeting this goal will require an additional 5 to 9 billion dollars for E-Rate, which is part of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund.
Providing more robust connectivity to American schools and libraries is critical to prevent American students from falling on the wrong side of the digital divide. But the work doesn’t end there. It’s equally important to address issues such as teacher training and digital literacy. We also need to ensure that expanding access to schools is complemented by a push to connect the 19 million Americans in rural communities who don’t have broadband access at home and to provide affordable options to the 22 percent of American households with school age children that remain unconnected.
This post originally appearing on In The Tank, a blog from the New America Foundation.