High-speed internet service is essential to our elementary and high school students. Remote online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide in education. Those without high-speed internet experience will have limited job opportunities. It is a national challenge.
All this is not news. Unfortunately, the federal response to the need for high-speed internet to students in low-income families is inadequate and getting worse.
There are four sources of internet connectivity: (1) telephone wiring providing digital service (DSL); (2) fiber optic networks; (3) coaxial cable; and (4) wireless from a cell tower connected to base station that transmits and receives radio signals.
Telecommunication and cable companies own and operate this equipment, but there is little profit incentive to extend this infrastructure equipment to low-income neighborhood and remote areas.
The digital divide in education is well-known. The 2020 Abell Foundation report and a 2017 report by the Deutsch Foundation both document the digital divide in Baltimore — for example, 40.7% of households do not have wireline internet service.
Low-income families (1) cannot afford monthly internet subscriptions; (2) cannot afford a computer or similar device able to handle digital files; and/or (3) live where there is no wired infrastructure or nearby wireless access point. Students need speeds close to 100 Mbps to realize the benefits of the internet.
Private initiatives by internet service providers are insufficient. Their programs, like Comcast’s Internet Essentials, are not sustained and reach only a small percentage of students in need.
States and cities have some internet access programs. Maryland recently announced a $15 million wireless plan focusing on rural areas. In Baltimore, Enoch Pratt Free Library extends Wi-Fi from some of its buildings, and Councilman Zeke Cohen has been an outspoken advocate for increased internet access in the city.
States and cities, however, do not have the financial resources or leverage over telecommunication and cable companies to meet the challenge.
Nonprofit organizations have stepped up. Many programs extend wireless access from cell towers to neighborhood streets and blocks. In Baltimore, Project Waves, led by Adam Bouhmad and supported by the Digital Harbor Foundation, has installed rooftop antennae to provide Wi-Fi.
Another grass-roots effort is led by Alexandria Warrick-Adams of Elev8Baltimore. In partnership with Rowdy Orb.it, they have trained residents to install Wi-Fi hotspots.
What is needed
Yet all these efforts cannot remedy the nationwide shortfall. A federal response is needed. The current FCC programs intended to get high-speed internet connections to low-income families are ineffective, and an overhaul is needed.
Telecommunication carriers regulated by the FCC contribute to the Universal Service Fund (USF), a funding mechanism for current internet access programs. Billions of USF dollars are collected and spent each year on defined programs. The USF, however, does not meet the needs of students in low-income families.
The only FCC internet program for low-income families is Lifeline. It provides only $9.25 monthly towards an internet subscription, which today costs at least $50.00 per month for 100 Mbps service. Low-income families that are not in or near poverty are left out.
Lifeline expenditures are decreasing, down over $400 million from 2017 to 2019. The FCC has no program that addresses the cost to schools and families of buying computers or other suitable devices for students.
A national program to bring high-speed internet to elementary and high school students should at least mandate that internet service providers offer low-cost, high-speed internet access subscriptions; subsidize two-thirds of the monthly subscription access fee for families having an annual income of less than 175% of the federal poverty levels ($45,850 for a family of four); and greatly expand installation of high-speed internet infrastructure and wireless access points in underserved urban and rural areas.
USF disbursements are shrinking because the contribution base is too limited. It should be increased by including revenues from companies that profit substantially from high-speed internet. Companies that profit handsomely from high-speed internet — search engines, browsers, streaming services, social media, online retailers with more than $10 million in revenue – should be required to contribute to the USF.
The annual 2019 sales revenues from just five companies that profit from high-speed internet (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix) would add $656 billion to the contribution base, increasing it to roughly $1 trillion. Applying a 2% company contribution percentage would produce an annual USF fund of $20 billion, more than double the amount disbursed in 2019.
Committed leadership from the president, Congress, and industry can produce a new national program that provides high-speed internet to all low-income families with elementary and high school students, regardless of where they live.
Francis J. Gorman is of counsel to Gorman & Williams. His practice focuses on technology, intellectual property, and other business-related matters. He can be contacted at [email protected]