Tuesday, June 10, 2014
F.C.C. Chief Plans Action on Wi-Fi in Schools
By EDWARD WYATT JUNE 10, 2014
WASHINGTON — Visiting a middle school in Oakland earlier this year, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, got a glimpse of just how badly American schools need better high-speed Internet connections.
At the Edna Brewer Middle School, students used tablet computers as part of their daily lessons. But to get online material through a Wi-Fi signal, some students had to move around the classroom and hold their tablets in the air.
That experience is not unusual. Though the F.C.C. spends $2.4 billion a year to provide schools and libraries with high-speed Internet connections, none of that has gone in recent years to pay for Wi-Fi connections — something that is often available free in coffee shops, hotels and parks.
Mr. Wheeler is said to want to change that. According to F.C.C. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Mr. Wheeler is planning next week to offer his fellow commissioners a proposed regulatory change to promote Wi-Fi in schools. Mr. Wheeler’s aim is to get the issue on the agenda for the F.C.C.’s July 11 meeting.
Though equipping schools with Wi-Fi seems like an obvious step, the F.C.C. is bound by rules governing the E-Rate fund, the program that subsidizes the installation of high-speed Internet connections at schools. Current rules prioritize bringing connections to a school or library over improving networks inside a school.
Now, with nearly all schools having an Internet connection, the F.C.C. is aiming to move inside them as well, using both current money and additional reserves to pay for Wi-Fi connections.
“The nature of education connectivity has changed,” Mr. Wheeler wrote in arecent blog post addressing the issue. “Earlier on, it was revolutionary to simply connect a computer lab. Later, computers made their way into the classroom but were relegated to a place along the back wall. Today we have the technology to expand to laptops or tablets on every student’s desk.”
But in the most recent funding year, “E-Rate provided zero dollars for Wi-Fi,” he said. Still, Mr. Wheeler has made it a goal to put new equipment in place by the 2015 school year.
Last July, the F.C.C. began a review and modernization of the E-Rate program, aiming to eliminate payments for outmoded uses like pagers and directory assistance. Last June, the White House announced the ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren with high-speed broadband and wireless networks within five years — or now, four years.
Only 43 percent of schools say they have adequate connectivity, including Wi-Fi, to allow every student to access the appropriate online educational material, according to a survey and report by Education SuperHighway and the Consortium for School Networking, two nonprofit organizations.
“There is progress being made,” said Evan Marwell, the chief executive and founder of Education SuperHighway. “But the question is, does the commission have enough of a sense of urgency to determine that this needs to be done now?”
The expansion of Wi-Fi will have to be done as schools also upgrade their broadband connections. In the last year, the percentage of schools meeting the current per-student standard for high-speed broadband grew to about 37 percent from 28 percent, Mr. Marwell said.
At that rate, all schools will meet the standard by 2021 — but by that time, the standard will have increased tenfold.
The F.C.C. has said it intends to reallocate $2 billion in an E-Rate reserve account to pay for additional broadband. In addition, Mr. Wheeler says the commission could provide 10 million students with Wi-Fi access using money saved by phasing out obsolete services, like pagers and directory assistance.
Commissioners from both parties have expressed support for reforming E-Rate. Ajit Pai, the senior Republican commissioner, said last month that the F.C.C. should consider reforms that are as broad as possible.
“We should not settle for the existing system and just tinker around the edges,” Mr. Pai said at an F.C.C. workshop on E-Rate modernization. Still, he added, “the primary question at this point is how to achieve that goal.” Until Mr. Wheeler circulates a draft of his proposal to the other commissioners, it is uncertain whether it will gain the three votes needed to pass.
John Krull, the information technology officer for the Oakland public school system, said the need for Wi-Fi upgrades cannot wait another year. “We pretty much need an access point in every classroom,” Mr. Krull said. “Just having a few access points spread around the school doesn’t cut it.”