FCC program would help lower-income students get help with virtual learning

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Some 15 million US students lack either home internet access or an electronic device to use for schoolwork. A new federal program hopes to change that.

The Federal Communications Commission has given final approval to a program that offers a $50-a-week internet credit to low-income families — one which will help e-learners at all education levels, many of whom have had zero or limited internet access during the pandemic.

The COVID relief package passed by Congress in December laid the groundwork for the new program, with the legislation allotting $3.2 billion in funding to the FCC to be distributed for broadband access and connectivity initiatives.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide qualifying families with a credit of up to $50 a month — or up to $75 a month in tribal regions — to be applied to their internet bills for the duration of the pandemic. A $100 credit will also be available to go toward a tablet, computer, or similar electronic device.

Eligible families include those who have lost employment since the pandemic began, those who have received Pell Grants, or those who are on food stamps or Medicaid.

Low-income students, especially those in rural and tribal areas, are among those who will benefit the most from the new FCC credit program.

U.S. public schools were forced to close down in March 2020, due to the pandemic, switching instead to virtual learning. A National Parents Union Poll in late September indicated that 58% of U.S. public school students were learning exclusively online during the pandemic, while 18% were learning via a hybrid online/in-person model.

The move to virtual learning wasn't seamless for everyone. Studies have repeatedly shown that at least 15 million American students lack either home internet access or an electronic device to use for schoolwork. Of those, 9 million lack both. And many suggest these numbers may actually be much larger because of inadequate data available.

The racial divide is stark. Of those students with inadequate connectivity, 35% are Native American, 30% are Black, and 26% are Latino.

Even students who do have internet access may lack high-speed connectivity or have spotty signals, especially in rural or tribal areas.

The Pew Research Center indicates that 15% of families with school-aged children do not have high-speed internet capability at home. That number rises to fully one-third of families when considering only those with household incomes under $30,000 a year.

Elizabeth Gettelman Galicia, who serves as vice president of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on technology advocacy and education, told Marketplace Tech that lack of internet access and technology made virtual learning difficult, if not impossible, for many students across the country. In virtual learning programs at some schools, hundreds of enrolled students a day have been marked absent.

"We heard from teachers who weren't able to upload videos that they had made or host a Zoom class, so had to drive to a parking lot where they could access free Wi-Fi," Galicia said.

Galicia also cited data showing that "nearly all U.S. households have at least a mobile phone," but not much else. "Try to do a book report or navigate a chemistry lesson on your phone," she said. "Mobile-only is not going to cut it ... when it comes to distance learning."

No consistent federal aid has been available for virtual learners in the past, although state-level programs like Lifeline, a program overseen by the FCC, have helped low-income users apply for reduced-rate internet and phone access in the past.

Some states have attempted their own versions of expanding internet access for low-income students in underserved communities. In January, two Texas Republican state senators rolled out legislation that would create a Broadband Development Office and Broadband Development Program, agencies that could form a statewide plan. A new bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly this month would expand access for qualifying low-income students. Ohio and Maryland, too, have made efforts in state legislatures to expand broadband access for students during the pandemic.

Still, the new FCC program is the first concerted federal effort to expand broadband access for low-income families, and could improve the online learning experience of students nationwide.

The FCC has come under fire in the past for its failure to treat internet as a public utility, failure to collect sufficient data on regions where internet access is limited, and failure to hold providers accountable when they receive funding for expanding broadband access — and then don't use it. But the new internet-credit program is seen by some as a step in the right direction.

"This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection," Jessica Rosenworcel, acting FCC chair, said in a statement. "It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work. It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.