Image: The White House Flickr
Last week during the State of the Union address, President Obama promised to help make US schools more technologically competitive in a big way over the next few years. Obama pledged to increase access to the internet by bringing some 15,000 schools and twenty million students online over the next two years, all "without adding a dime to the deficit." It sounded like a tall order; exactly the kind of high-minded idealism that seems right at home in a SOTU address but only sputters out afterwards. But according to reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post, it looks like the FCC is already moving to put its money where Obama's mouth is by doubling spending on broadband to bring high-speed internet to more schools across the country.
As the Times and the Post report, the FCC is expected to announce plans this week to increase annual spending from $1 billion to $2 billion to better fund broadband in school and libraries. To start, the increased funding is coming from unused funds from the government's E-Rate program, which provides discounts to libraries and schools for various telecommunications services. Later on down the road, the plan is to channel more spending into the program by drawing funds away from outdated, slower alternatives like dial-up internet. The goal is to establish 100 megabytes per second (mbps) as the universal standard (for the time being) for all US schools.
A Wall Street Journal report from the beginning of 2014 gives a good picture of why slower internet speeds are such a problem for educational standards. The U.S. has fallen behind countries like Latvia and South Korea when it comes to internet connectivity. A senior at a north-central Vermont high school is quoted in the piece saying that his teachers often tell him things like: "I was going to show you how to do this in class, but the internet isn't working." And that's not even mentioning the many technical problems schools are already facing as more common core tests are brought online.
In light of all these issues, is $2 billion enough to bring US schools up to speed in such a short amount of time? As Obama mentioned during last week's address, several high profile tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon are each investing in the network as well. The AP reports this is expected to add another $500 million in funding.
But the problem with simply shifting funds away from services like dial-up that are now deemed "outdated" is that it could lead the FCC to overlook anybody still relying on these kinds of basic phone services—namely low-income and elderly customers. The Post therefore reports that consumer groups have started to warn that people are being pressured into upgrading to new phone plans that they may not be able to afford.
Of course, more substantial improvements could be made if the federal government raised additional funds to support any new educational programs along these lines. But as Obama made clear in his address last week, the administration is looking for a way to do this as painlessly as possible, which means avoiding any allegations that high speed internet connections in schools is somehow raising taxes.