Better technology — particularly better connectivity — is seen as one of the linchpins of education reform, and the White House hopes to overhaul school broadband with a new initiative. The ConnectED program, announced today, is meant to get 99 percent of students in schools access to stable Wi-Fi networks and high-speed broadband, defined as no less than 100Mbps with a target of 1Gbps. To do so, it will rely on the E-Rate or Schools and Libraries Program, which subsidizes internet service discounts for schools and libraries. Currently, E-Rate provides 20 to 90 percent discounts to institutions that meet its criteria. But in a 2012 report on the state of broadband in schools, the FCC noted that 80 percent of E-Rate recipients said their broadband did not meet their needs, with 78 percent saying they needed more bandwidth.
Obama has called for the FCC to overhaul the E-Rate program, working with private companies and the President's telecom advisors. E-Rate is administered under the Universal Service Fund, which raises money by adding small fees to consumer telephone bills. The New York Times reports that while Obama has asked the FCC to look for ways to make E-Rate more efficient, he's also asking for consumers to pay an extra $5 a year into the fund. The Universal Service fund distributed a total of $8.71 billion to broadband and telephone access programs in 2012; of that, $2.22 billion went to the Schools and Libraries Program.
Obama wants 99 percent of students' schools to have 100Mbps broadband
Expanding internet connectivity was one of the major goals of Julius Genachowski's FCC: the Connect America Fund expanded the Universal Service Fund beyond telephone service and into things like rural broadband, and the FCC hopes to implement universal broadband access in the coming decade. While broadband for individual households is considered adequate as long as it's 4Mbps or higher, the White House says that schools are having trouble getting fast enough connections to support their heavier usage load.
In addition to building out internet access, the ConnectED plan includes a call to better train teachers and provide new digital learning tools, whether that's new lesson creation options or MOOC-like online courses. Particular attention is also being paid to schools in rural areas, which often have both dramatically lower broadband access and fewer brick-and-mortar educational institutions. Unfortunately for the Obama Administration, ConnectED will likely be overlooked amidst discussion of a different "universal access" program: the secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over data for domestic and international phone calls made on its network.