Ninety-nine percent. That’s the percentage of US students the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to provide with high-speed Internet in schools in the next five years. To achieve the goal, the agency is making a $2 billion “down payment” over the next two years. But is that enough?
According to a press release from the FCC, the $2 billion investment for Internet in schools should give 20 million students true high-speed access. In addition, the FCC will also be working to update the existing E-Rate program, which began in 1996 and provides $2.4 billion annually to keep libraries and schools online. Thanks to E-Rate, schools across America now have access to basic Internet, but many are hampered by slow connections or poor infrastructure. Revamping E-Rate should help bring these institutions up to 21st-century connectivity levels, while streamlining the application and approval process for schools should help them lower overall Internet costs. The FCC also has plans to increase oversight and transparency to ensure every dollar earmarked for a school actually arrives there. There’s no word on exactly how fast connections will be once the $2 billion is spent, but this doubling of existing broadband support should ideally bring many schools up to par with basic home networks.
Some private companies are also helping students connect. As reported recently by CNET, Internet provider Comcast has announced an indefinite extension to its “Internet Essentials” program, which offers subsidized broadband access for low-income families. In addition, the company is handing out grants to 20 communities that have made efforts to “close the digital divide” or improve existing services. These grants will go toward creating Internet Essential Learning Zones, which connect nonprofit organizations, libraries, and community computer centers. The program is already available in 39 states and more than 4,000 school districts. In addition, Comcast has plans to roll out Internet Essentials in service areas now covered by Time Warner Cable, provided federal regulators approve its buyout of the company.
Closing the “digital divide” was something first proposed by the FCC in their National Broadband Plan and aims to bring high-speed access to all Americans. The plan was published in 2010; at that time, 93 million users were without broadband access. The FCC’s new $2 billion Internet in schools investment helps reduce that number and, along with support from providers like Comcast, puts the federal agency within reach of its five-year, 99 percent objective.
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