As millions of students turn to online education, the FCC must implement bold changes to close the digital divide

With confirmed cases of coronavirus on the rise in the US, over 100,000 schools have closed, disrupting the education of over 55 million students. While many schools are turning to online instruction, the millions of students who fall into the “homework gap”— those who lack broadband access at home — risk falling further behind their peers. 

The gap is substantial. Approximately 12 million students lack broadband access at home. While many think of the digital divide as an urban-rural divide, there are three times as many households without broadband access in urban areas than rural areas. 

Within the two largest public school systems in the nation, New York City and Los Angeles, millions of  households don’t have broadband access. In New York City, roughly one million households don’t have access and in Los Angeles it’s over a million. For many students in these households, a smartphone and public WiFi is their only option.

Online instruction often requires high-bandwidth connections to download content and engage in real-time instruction through videoconferencing. A smartphone is insufficient and with the current statewide “shelter in place” orders, students will be unable to depend on public WiFi networks. 

While the FCC has long-standing programs in place to support high-speed broadband inclusion and access to computers for students and low-income households, such as E-Rate and Lifeline, these programs desperately need updating to address the connectivity needs faced by students.

The E-Rate program will provide $4 billion in investments in 2020 to support broadband development in schools and libraries, but restrictions on use of funding to support students’ broadband access at home — like purchasing mobile hotspots or consumer devices such as laptops and tablets — will only further the homework gap. Since 2016, Lifeline has offered subsidies for broadband access in low-income households, yet reforms implemented under the Trump administration have made it more difficult for people to apply. Only one-fourth of eligible households are currently enrolled and recently proposed reforms threaten to further reduce enrollments.

On March 16, Senators Markey (D-MA), Bennet (D-CO), and Schatz (D-HI) co-authored a letter with 13 other members of Congress urging the FCC to use its emergency powers to change the E-Rate program rules to allow schools to use funding to purchase hotspots and WiFi-enabled devices for students to use at home. Additional legislative efforts are also underway to create a $100 million grant program allowing anchor institutions like schools and libraries to purchase hotspots that can be loaned out. 

On March 18, the FCC waived gift rules that had restricted schools from accepting or soliciting broadband access and devices as gifts from service providers. The week prior, the FCC issued its “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” calling upon the large national ISPs to not terminate service, suspend data caps, and provide free access to public hotspots for a 60-day time period, many of which have complied. While these are promising steps, reliance on private sector goodwill is not sustainable. 

The FCC should immediately adapt the E-Rate program to allow schools to use funds to purchase hotspots and computers for students of low-income households and should streamline and simplify the Lifeline application process to ensure all eligible Americans can enroll in a timely manner. 

As schools and government agencies recognize the critical role they play in bridging the food security gap for students by providing meals throughout school closures, it’s also critical that schools are equipped to bridge the homework gap. It’s time the FCC take bold steps to ensure our most vulnerable students continue to thrive during and after this challenging time.

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