Just a few months into the school year, we’ve already witnessed countless examples of schools that are not adequately prepared when it comes to hybrid learning. Regardless of the status of the pandemic around the country, parents and policymakers agree that we must work together to ensure our children’s learning does not suffer as a result.
Last year, we saw the consequences of the digital divide: the have and the have nots of broadband. Many students—particularly children and those residing in predominantly rural areas—fell unacceptably behind. This year is proving to be no different, and in some communities, it is even more dire, as many schools offer fewer online options for families. We must make sure no one is left behind regardless of whether they are required to attend class in-person or not. Thankfully, there are a few ways we can ensure that students are not left behind.
First, Congress must provide the necessary funding to ensure every student has a fast, reliable, and affordable Internet connection to access quality education online. Congress’ recent approval of the bipartisan infrastructure package, that includes $65 billion in funding for broadband — $42 billion that will go toward grants for state broadband projects and $14.2 billion, which will go toward the extension of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Emergency Broadband Benefit” (EBB) program, under the new moniker “Affordable Connectivity Program” — is a critical step forward.
Unfortunately, the package also reduces the monthly discount for Internet services provided to low-income households from $50 to $30, which, at best is counterproductive and further underscores the need for Congress to provide additional funding and at worst will only cement the digital divide in the future. For context, the average advertised Internet package in the U.S. costs around $60 per month, according to Roll Call.
Second, earlier this year the Biden administration unveiled its new broadband mapping tool. In the past, the FCC has created broadband maps, but they are notoriously inaccurate. And while the agency has made efforts in recent months to update these maps, a complete overhaul is not likely until 2022. To ensure investments in infrastructure are made in the areas that need it most, we need the most accurate and meaningful maps. The administration, Congress, local government, community groups, and existing Internet service providers must come together to create accurate broadband maps.
Third, schools must have equitable access to the necessary resources, once they are available. Even though the FCC’s deadline to apply to the Emergency Connectivity Fund for remote learning resources ended, it was encouraging to see the FCC consistently urge schools and libraries to apply for the Fund via its various social media channels. The Fund, which includes $7.17 billion for eligible schools and libraries to purchase connectivity equipment like Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and laptops for students and teachers, was signed into law earlier this year by President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats push vote on social spending plan to Friday Fauci says all adults should ‘go get boosted’ Senate confirms Park Service director after years of acting heads MORE as part of the American Rescue Plan. It is important to note the FCC announced another wave of funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Bottom line, this is a team effort. State and local governments, the Biden administration, and non-traditional partners like general infrastructure planners and the nonprofit community, need to come together to use every available tool to close the digital divide. A key asset in this fight will be community networks – access to the Internet made possible by and for a community – and policymakers should encourage their adoption at every level. Unfortunately, nearly a third of states directly forbid or have regulatory barriers in place for municipal and community networks. More must be done to remedy the structural roadblocks to these simple, community-based networks, as municipalities will continue to face challenges in providing local broadband services to their citizens if these policies are not changed.
And while no one entity or coalition can solve this challenge, the responsibility rests squarely with our elected officials to ensure the social safety net provided by a high-quality education does not fail students because of a lack of Internet access.
Jane Coffin is Senior Vice President for Internet Growth at the Internet Society.