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Digital Inclusion

FCC’s Jessica Rosenworcel Calls for Wi-Fi School Buses, and Brookings Panelists Agree Now is the Time

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Photo of Nicol Turner Lee from October 2018 by U.S. Commerce Department

April 10, 2020 – Participants in a Brookings Institution meeting on Zoom expressed interest in an off-hand comment FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made about deploying Wi-Fi-enabled buses to provide hot-spots for rural students.

Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation, and Cathy Trimble, principal of the Francis Marion School in Alabama, asked why this practice couldn’t become more widespread.

Wi-Fi in school buses could be a short-term solution for giving students on the wrong side of the digital divide the internet they need to complete their homework, they said.

“As far as I’m concerned, let’s do it, and let’s do it right now,” Rosenworcel, a staunch advocate for eliminating the so-called “homework gap,” said of the idea, during the Wednesday webinar.

Rosenworcel elaborated on her encounter with a farmer in Coachella, California who came up with the idea of using buses to beam broadband after noticing that the tablets that were donated to the students in his district were useless without connectivity.

The practice caught on from there and spread throughout the nation.  In fact, one of the panelists had reported seeing these buses more than once. “My kids think I’m not getting enough sleep ‘cause I keep seeing this bus,” said Turner Lee.

Rosenworcel took her commitment to providing broadband to needy students to its extreme while talking about the release of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed spectrum. “Let me be clear: I want the FCC to solve the homework gap,” Rosenworcel said.

Trimble provided context for what the homework gap felt like on the ground. When her high school was forced to go remote due to the coronavirus, Trimble said that she and her teachers “spent an entire day” contacting students and their parents “to see who had access to Wi-Fi or who had access to the internet.”

Once a list of students who lacked broadband was compiled, she arranged for those students to receive “hard copy packets” of the week’s readings and homework assignments.

Nonetheless, Trimble’s school has persevered despite inadequate broadband. She proudly noted the 100 percent student graduation rate for seniors and 100 percent acceptance into college in a county where the median salary is $23,000 a year.

“If anybody ever makes an investment in this community, I promise you they’ll get an outstanding return from our outstanding young people,” Trimble said.

Trimble also scolded education officials in her county for slacking. She recounted to the panelists how when she first found out about the E-rate program, which is the largest extant fund for donating education technology to needy schools, she also found out that no one in her country had sent in an application. “We need someone advocating for us,” Trimble said.

She also related a story about how excited she and her colleagues were to begin a “Girls Who Code” chapter at her school after attending a seminar by Apple. Trimble organized the club and found support in some female students “only to find the devices were antiquated.”

Turner Lee then coined a term to describe the disparity that Trimble was describing: “broadband gentrification.”

Digital Inclusion

White House Presses Outreach Initiatives for Affordable Connectivity Program

White House officials urged schools and other local institutions to engage in text-message and social media campaigns for the ACP.

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Photo of President Joe Biden, obtained from Wikimedia.

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2022 – The White House on Monday urged schools and other local institutions to engage in text-message and social media campaigns, PSAs, and other community-outreach initiatives to promote enrollment in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program among of families with school-age children.

The Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes internet service bill for low-income households. Monthly discounts of up to $30 are available for non-tribal enrollees, $75 for applicants on qualifying tribal lands. In addition, the ACP offers enrollees a one-time discount $100 on qualifying device purchases.

To boost ACP enrollment, speakers encouraged schools to reach out directly to families. Bharat Ramanurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council, said text-message campaigns drive up enrollment in government programs. A Massachusetts text-message campaign doubled ACP enrollment rates in subsequent days, said Ramanurti.

Also highlighted was the administration’s “ACP Consumer Outreach Kit,” which provides partners with resources, including fliers, posters, audio PSAs, social-media templates.

In fact, many of these tactics have proved effective in increasing ACP enrollment among telehealth patients. In addition, Microsoft and Communications Workers of America recently announced a circuit of ACP sign-up drives in that will tour several states including Michigan, New York, and North Carolina.

Political considerations as November nears…

As students go back to school and midterm elections loom, new ACP sign-ups could benefit the enrollees as well as the Democrats’ political chances.

Public officials and private experts alike recognize the value of community involvement in extending broadband connectivity and digital literacy nationwide. Marshaling community institutions – like schools – to maximize broadband access could help Biden and other Democrats overcome inflation-driven electoral headwinds in the November midterms. The White House obtained commitments from 20 providers to offer high-speed internet plans for $30 per month or less to ACP-eligible households – this means no out-of-pocket costs for recipients of ACP discounts. Free broadband coverage could bring the administration – and all Democrat candidates, by extension – back into the good graces of low-income families.

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Digital Inclusion

Federal Government Must Collect More Granular Data on Minorities to Aid in Initiatives

Discussion on the “data gap” comes as the nation tries to connect the unserved and underserved.

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Screenshot of Denice Ross, the White House's chief data scientist

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2022 – In order to serve the needs of all Americans, the federal government must gather and act on more granular data on underrepresented minority groups that have been historically overlooked in the data-gathering process, said Denice Ross, the White House’s chief data scientist.

Ross argued at an online event hosted by the Center for Data Innovation on Tuesday that many minority groups – including African Americans, Native Americans, the disabled, and the LGBT community – are disadvantaged by the “data divide,” a term which refers to disparities in the amount and quality of available data on various groups.

Ross was citing a report issued earlier this year by the Equitable Data Working Group, a task force created by President Joe Biden earlier this year, which said policymakers are often unable to perceive or ameliorate problems facing minority communities if data on those communities are unavailable or insufficiently disaggregated. Disaggregated data, the report says, is “data that can be broken down and analyzed by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, age, or other key demographic variables.”

The report recommends a federal data collection strategy that safeguards privacy and facilitates analysis of “the interconnectedness of identities and experiences,” or how individuals’ various minority-group identities compound the societal disadvantages they face. The report also advocates the creation of “incentives and pathways” promoting minority representation in the data collection process.

The recommendations come as the broadband industry and federal agencies try to improve knowledge of where there are unserved and underserved areas for broadband connectivity and to take action to improve digital literacy. The Illinois Broadband Lab and other state broadband offices, for example, implement a community-up approach to data gathering. Direct community involvement provides data insights that help states deliver coverage to in-need communities, officials say. 

In the panel discussion that followed Ross’s opening remarks, experts and academics agreed that community outreach is a necessary step in closing the data divide. Dominique Harrison, director of bank Citi Ventures’ Racial Equity Design and Data Initiative, said that some in the African American community view data collection with skepticism.  

Christopher Wood, executive director of LGBT Tech, argued that the passage of a federal privacy standard is a critical step toward establishing trust in government data collection. The most recent attempt to pass a national privacy regime, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, was approved by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month.

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Digital Inclusion

Libraries in Position to Help Promote Federal Programs, Improve Digital Literacy: Library Rep

Libraries can act as gateways to ensure community members know about their broadband subsidy options.

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Screenshot of Larra Clark, deputy director of the Public Library Association, via CSPAN

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2022 – Libraries’ close connection with community members allow them to act as gateways for digital literacy, according to the deputy director of the Public Library Association.

Initiatives such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program and Emergency Connectivity Fund lower the cost of obtaining broadband coverage and devices, but at least the former has been plagued by a marketing problem.

As the FCC builds its outreach program for to more effectively market the ACP, Larra Clark, deputy director of the PLA and of the Public Policy & Advocacy Office of the American Library Association, said libraries can help promote those programs and help address digital literacy problems as well.  

Speaking Monday at a GovExec and Comcast web event, Clark argued that the efforts of government officials, experts, and industry players to provide broadband coverage and the hardware necessary to access it must be accompanied by community-level educational programs.

Many unserved or underserved individuals, however, are unaware of how to get access to broadband, Clark said. And even if unserved and underserved individuals are aware of the programs through which they can obtain broadband, they often lack the digital literacy to navigate application processes.

Clark said she believes that a necessary component of digital literacy outreach is understanding the perspectives on and biases against new technologies in many hard-to-reach communities. “I really believe these human dimensions should be at the forefront of our conversations,” Clark said.

Expanding digital literacy among difficult-to-reach populations is a recognized challenge for many broadband industry experts and politicians.

A Texas library system facilitated pandemic relief

At the same event, David Cross, Comcast’s vice president of enterprise sales, offered an example of how libraries can extend broadband assistance to their communities.

During the pandemic, one Texas library system offered parking lot drive-through stations that helped people sign up for government assistance on energy costs. By providing iPads, WiFi access, and staff assistance, Cross said, this program ensured that all in-need community members – including the unserved and the technologically illiterate – were able to access relief and restore power to their homes.

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