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Digital Divide: FCC Doubles Funding For Internet in Public Schools, Libraries

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First Posted: Feb 04, 2014 06:29 PM EST
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The Federal Communications Commission announced that it plans to double the money it's spending on faster internet connections in public schools and libraries. The initiative was part of President Obama's State of the Union address, where he promised that 15,000 schools would get faster, better internet access.

About 20 million students in the United States, including many young Latinos, will be affected by the new measure, which is a restructuring of the E-Rate program -- the government's program for connecting the nation's schools and libraries to the internet, created in 1996.

The E-Rate program has had success since its establishment, bringing the approximately 86 percent of schools in the U.S. which didn't have internet access in 1996 into the modern age. However, as broadband capacities have increased -- along with content that requires a high-bandwidth connection -- schools and libraries across the country have fallen behind.

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A Harris Interactive survey from 2010 (via the New York Times' report) commissioned by the FCC found that about half of the schools enrolled in the E-Rate program had internet connections that were too slow to stream most online video. Another study cited, one by the American Library Association (ALA) released in 2009, found that a majority of U.S. public libraries failed to meet the needs of patrons some or most of the time, especially in rural areas.

Rebuilding E-Rate

The FCC, which began updating the E-Rate program that year, is now in the process of a full review to restructure the program, based around the goals of increasing high-capacity broadband access, lowering costs through bulk buying and competitive bidding, and cutting bureaucratic obstacles to streamline the speed of broadband adoption.

The formal announcement of changes to the program is expected this week by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. While the funding for 2014's E-Rate program will likely come from leftover funds from previous years, it's expected that next year's money will come from a restructuring of the E-Rate program, which is part of the Universal Service Fund that also runs Lifeline, an FCC program that currently provides low-income Americans with discounted land and wireless phone lines. Until Wheeler formally announces the changes, it's not clear what programs will or will not be left standing.

However, Wheeler's restructuring is likely to include axing parts of E-Rate that deal with outdated technologies like dial-up Internet, paging services, and email programs that can now be replaced by one of many free alternatives, according to the New York Times. Instead, the focus will be on high-capacity broadband, above 3 megabits per second, and providing wireless networks in schools and libraries for easy access from modern WiFi-enabled laptops and tablets. The FCC's ultimate goal is to give all public schools access to broadband connections of 100 megabits per second by next year.

On top of the FCC reorganization of E-Rate and doubling its funding to $2 billion, several telecom firms have pledged to give free wireless internet service for middle school and disadvantaged students. Among several major companies, Sprint, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and AT&T have committed to donating or discounting devices and services to expand access to the internet for struggling schools, totaling $750 million in spending.

Bridging the Digital Divide for Latinos 

Providing improved internet speed and access in public libraries and schools is essential for low-income Latinos who are still on the other side of the digital divide -- the gap between mainstream America that has regular access to the internet and those who don't. Recent studies have found that, while the digital divide is slowly closing, Latinos are still disproportionately affected by it. One study by Pew found that almost a quarter of Hispanic adults in the U.S. do not use the internet or email at all, and the cost of internet technology is the biggest reason cited.

While making home broadband access more affordable is the only direct solution to the digital divide for Latinos, better public access in schools and libraries is yet another way to help bridge the gap. 

"Only 53% of American Latinos have home broadband access at a time when most U.S. teachers assign homework that requires Internet access," commented Jessica J. González, executive vice president and general council for the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), in an email to LatinPost. "This means that only about half of Latino children have the basic tools to achieve academic success. Although still awaiting the details, NHMC applauds the Obama Administration's initiative to close the opportunity divide and get all of our schools up to speed."

On the promised influx of private funds and the FCC's reorganization efforts, González continued:

"We are equally pleased with the recognition that broadband access in the classroom must be combined with broadband adoption in the home to truly ensure that none of our children are left behind. We applaud the private investment of wireless providers that have pledged their services to connect our students at home and we hope to see an equally impressive evolution of existing federal programs that deal with affordability -- such as the Lifeline program, which we hope will one day provide support for standalone home broadband service for low-income families. To that end, while we are fully supportive of these efforts to improve E-Rate, we hope that funds aren't diverted from other important programs like Lifeline to pay the bill."

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