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The Broadband State of the Union? Obama Touts Apple- and Microsoft-Funded eRate Initiative in Address

in Broadband's Impact/FCC/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2014 – President Obama highlighted the importance of broadband connectivity in his State of the Union address Tuesday, and announced that Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon were contributing funds to enable ultra-high-speed broadband connections “over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.”

The statement appears to be a reference to ConnectED, the White House and Federal Communications Commission initiative announced in June 2013 to update the eRate component for enhancing broadband spending under the Universal Service Fund.

The FCC has been overhauling portions of the USF in recent years, and the effort to tackle to the eRate components addresses an important component not yet addressed by the agency.

When Obama announced the ConnectED initiative at Mooresville Middle School in North Carolina in June, he said:

Today, the average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home. Only around 20 percent of our students have access to true high-speed Internet in their classroom. By comparison, South Korea has 100 percent of its kids with high-speed Internet. We’ve got 20 percent; South Korea 100 percent. In countries where — in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools? Right? Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?

At the time, Obama called on the FCC to use the existing eRate program to direct the government to provide the necessary technology and training for teachers to use it and urge the communities to support the program.

One month later, the agency’s acting chairwoman took the first steps to implement the initiative.

And in a blog post from last Friday, January 24, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler began to articulate the motivation behind the administration and the FCC’s approach to ConnectED/eRate changes. Wheeler wrote:

It isn’t enough to simply emphasize the need for more broadband; the focus has to be on what high-speed Internet connections enable, whether in fully connected classrooms or after school in a library. We must lead the world in this effort. I am firmly committed to meeting the goal of connecting 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband within five years.

The fact of the matter is that we have moved from the era of “computers in the classroom” where a few PCs sat along the wall for occasional use to “computers on the desks” where students interact on an ongoing basis to not only learn their lessons, but also to acquire the computer literacy skills necessary for 21st Century careers.

That would suggest that the new version of the eRate is going to be about much more than broadband connectivity – it will be about digital literacy training through the sort of programs that have attracted the interest of computer makers like Microsoft and Apple.

In Tuesday night’s speech, Obama referenced the eRate as follows:

Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.

Immediately following the speech, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler released the following statement:

Harnessing the power of digital technology is central to improving our education system and our global competitiveness. In the Internet age, every student in America should have access to state-of-the-art educational tools, which are increasingly interactive, individualized and bandwidth-intensive. The Federal Communications Commission shares the President’s commitment to seizing the opportunities of digital learning, which is why we’ve already launched an effort to modernize our successful E-Rate program – the nation’s largest education technology program. By applying business-like management practices to E-Rate, we can take steps this year that will make existing funds go farther to significantly increase our investment in high-speed broadband connectivity for schools and libraries for the benefit of our students and teachers. Together, with my fellow Commissioners, Congress, educators and other stakeholders, we can ensure that all of America’s students get a 21st-century education.

My former colleague, Chloe Albanesius, now at PC Mag, has these responses from Apple and Verizon:

“We are proud to join President Obama in this historic initiative to transform America’s schools. Apple has a long history in education, and we have pledged to contribute MacBooks, iPads, software and our expertise to support the ConnectED project. We look forward to announcing more details with the White House soon,” Apple said.

A Verizon spokesman, meanwhile, said that “we share the President’s vision for broadband as a transformative technology for educators and students, and in the coming weeks, we look forward to discussing how Verizon can help ensure America’s teachers and students have the tools and skills to succeed in this 21st century information economy.”

Drew Clark is Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at http://twitter.com/broadbandcensus. Nationally recognized for his knowledge on telecommunications law and policy, Clark brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband: job creation, telemedicine, online learning, public safety, the smart grid, eGovernment, and family connectedness. Clark is also available on Google+ and Twitter.

Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club. He tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband's impact, and the universal service fund @BroadbandCensus. He is also Of Counsel with the firm of Best Best & Krieger LLP. The articles and posts on BroadbandBreakfast.com and affiliated social media, including LinkedIN, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

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