Tuesday, February 23, 2016

FCC changes in federal subsidy program could help poor, rural students who lack Internet at home

Perla Castro, top, uses Internet access on a school bus
in Donna, Tex. (NYT photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman)
About five million students who lack Internet service at home—many of them in rural areas—are struggling to keep up with a growing trend in education to rely on resources from the Internet for class work, Ilana Panich-Linsman reports for The New York Times. In some rural areas students go to extremes to get connected, depending on "school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework. The buses are sometimes parked in residential neighborhoods overnight so that children can connect and continue studying." In other places, children head to free Wi-Fi hotspots, such as libraries and fast-food restaurants.

Poverty-stricken rural South Texas has one of the lowest Internet access rates in the country, with as many as 40 percent of households having no Internet access, Panich-Linsman writes. The South Texas Independent School District has put Wi-Fi on more than 100 school buses to help students who do not have access at home, leading some students to take longer bus rides home—sometimes lasting several hours—to finish homework. "In McAllen Independent School District, which has 33 schools and 25,000 students, each location runs wireless hot spots 24 hours a day so that students can sit in parking lots or crouch against school walls to do homework into the night."

Help could be on the way. Members of the Federal Communications Commission are expected to vote next month on re-purposing the $2 billion-a-year Lifeline phone subsidy program to give low-income households the option to apply the subsidy to broadband Internet access, either wired or wireless. Lifeline is different from the E-Rate program, which helps schools and public libraries pay for Internet service.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program, said "seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires web access," Panich-Linsman writes. "Yet one-third of kindergartners through 12th graders in the U.S., from low-income and rural households, are unable to go online from home. The Obama administration announced in July its own program to help address the problem, deploying free and affordable broadband into public housing."

"The Lifeline plan has drawn strong criticism from the two Republicans among the five FCC commissioners, and from some lawmakers, who say the program, which was introduced in 1985 to bring phone services to low-income families, has been wasteful and was abused," Panich-Linsman writes. "In 2008, when the commission added subsidies for mobile-phone services to discounts for landlines, some homes started double-billing the program, and the budget for the fund ballooned. Various investigations, including a government review in early 2015, questioned the effectiveness of the phone program and whether the commission had done enough to monitor for abuse. But advocacy groups for children and minorities have backed the FCC plan, saying it will be important in preventing students from falling further behind their peers."

Kelley Drye, an international law firm, is hosting a webinar from noon to 1 p.m. (EST) on Wednesday that will examine federal Universal Service Fund activities, including changes in the Lifeline program. For more information or to register for the event click here.

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