Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pressure from FCC could bring high-speed Internet to rural and under-served areas via schools

In November Education Week reported on how rural schools in northern Mississippi are paying big bucks for the state's slowest Internet. Education Week and PBS Newshour teamed up to re-visit the region and see what's being done to fix that, and use it as an example of a national problem. Correspondent John Tulenko visited Calhoun County (World Atlas map), which covers nearly 600 square miles of mostly farmland.

C.J. Weddle, a 17-year-old high school student who said she plans to get a four-year college degree, told Tulenko, "The Internet is very contrary at Vardaman High School. You have good, you have bad days, but at Vardaman, you have more bad than good. History classes are limited to books and worksheets. Well, you don’t do research on significant figures in history or significant figures the government now, and that—I think that’s really going to hurt us later. You know, why be limited to that, when there’s a whole world at your fingertips or potentially could be?"

Tulenko writes, "The Internet here is slow because it comes via old copper wires running for miles underground. Even though high-speed cables have been laid by a phone company on one side of the district, on the other side, a second company has said upgrading its service is too expensive. Without those new cables, there is no high-speed Internet for schools and students."

"But help could come from new changes to the $4 billion federal E-Rate program, which helps schools pay for Internet service," Tulenko reports. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, "led an effort to overhaul the E-Rate program, in part by giving districts like Calhoun County the option to use federal funds to build fiber networks of their own, pressuring local telecoms to offer better deals. Recently, Calhoun County became the test case, one of the first districts to seek federal funds to build a new fiber network that included the option of a build-out of its own."

Wheeler told Tulenko, "School administrators say, I’m not going to put up with it anymore, that I’m being told it’s too expensive, or I’m being told it can’t be built. But you actually can take the situation, and the FCC will help you take that situation in your hand by funding it, that’s a game-changer. ... What we did was, we said, 'OK, schools, if you’re not being provided service or not being provided service at a reasonable rate by your local provider, you can build it yourself.'"

But as often happens when telecommunications companies are threatened with government competition, they agree to provide broadband that the had said wasn't economically viable. "Schools here won’t have to build their own network," Tulenko reports. "By inviting outside companies to bid on the job or come in with their own fiber, the district was able to secure a more attractive contract from its local providers to complete the job. But it will take some time, maybe a year." (PBS video)

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