Left Behind: Students and Schools Without Internet Access Should Not be a 21st Century Reality



Imagine that you are in a school computer lab, working with classmates to build a presentation on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. You’re almost finished; all that’s left is to add a few helpful diagrams and — as is expected in every high school Einstein report — one or two silly images of the Nobel laureate. Unfortunately though, the school’s broadband connection isn’t fast enough, and you’re stuck waiting while the Internet buffers. For many students it’s not a problem; they’ll simply wait until they’re home and using their high-speed connection. But for millions of students across the country, that simply isn’t an option. In fact, the PEW Research Center estimates that there are approximately five million households with school-aged children in the U.S. that lack broadband access entirely, meaning that every student in those homes is afflicted by the homework gap.

The lack of adequate broadband access at both school and home is a frustrating problem to grapple with, particularly at a time when consumer demand is increasing dramatically and the market is being flooded with more and better technology. If the digital divide continues to grow at such an alarming rate, there will be serious, lasting consequences for students everywhere. Thankfully, both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Obama Administration are working hard to reform the system through their ConnectED initiative and E-Rate programs. The goal for each is to connect every school to affordable, ultra-high speed Internet by the end of the decade. Even still, there is a long way to go. According to the Consortium for School Networking, in 2014 one-quarter of districts reported that not a single school in their region could meet the FCC’s short-term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students.

This lack of progress is not lost on the individual FCC Commissioners either. At this year’s CUE 2016 National Conference, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel spent the entirety of her speech outlining how lack of access to broadband “is holding our education system back.” As the FCC continues its work to get students online, we at COMPETIFY urge them not to ignore the impact a non-competitive broadband marketplace has on achieving their goals.

The high-capacity broadband marketplace is currently dominated by a few broadband gatekeepers that dictate when, where and how much schools pay for broadband access. These incumbent companies control the critical pipelines that schools purchase in order to transmit all of their broadband traffic — including those silly Albert Einstein pictures. In fact, every online interaction — whether a Skype lecture, an online test or an image transmitted via the school’s Wi-Fi — travels through the pipelines controlled by those few incumbent providers. The problem is so bad that when the FCC collected data on the high-capacity broadband market, it showed that the majority of high-capacity broadband lines are controlled and operated by monopolies or duopolies at best.

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This systemic flaw allows these gatekeepers to earn extraordinary profits with almost no need to build better infrastructure. In Calhoun County, Mississippi the problem is so bad that teachers have given up on using online tools in the classroom and the district has given up on adopting new digital technology altogether. While some schools across the country are being transformed by better, faster technology, Calhoun County pays a premium — $9,275 a month! — for an Internet connection on par with dial-up.

To help bridge this digital divide some places like the New York City Public Library have introduced pilot programs that involve lending wireless hotspots to those without access to home Internet. But even wireless broadband isn’t immune to lack of competition. Just last week, Commissioner Rosenworcel told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “we need [high-capacity broadband] competition because wireless networks rely on wired connections.”

To learn more about high-capacity broadband lines visit our petition and join more than 10,000 consumers and businesses who are calling on the FCC to restore broadband competition.