GAO Supports Broadband to Students

In an interesting move, the General Accounting Office released a paper that suggests that the FCC should expand the use of E-Rate funding to allow wireless connections to student homes. The E-Rate program is one of the major components of the Universal Service Fund. Today the E-Rate program can be used to construct fiber assets to reach schools or to subsidize fast broadband connections to schools that demonstrate the financial need.

Specifically, the GAO “recommended that the FCC assess and report on the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making wireless access off school grounds eligible for E-rate.” The GAO recommendation went on to discuss the impact of the homework gap that puts students without home broadband at risk for falling behind their peers.

I’m sure that every rural broadband advocate understands this issue and applauds the GAO for making this suggestion. However, this seems extraordinary coming from the GAO and seems outside of their stated scope and function. The GAO is the internal auditor of the US government and is often called the congressional watchdog agency that examines how taxpayer dollars are spent. The GAO routinely provides reports to Congress with ideas on how the government can save money and work more efficiently.

I may have missed it, but I can’t remember the agency ever making policy suggestions of this magnitude to the FCC in the past. This seems like a particularly puzzling recommendation because it’s a suggestion on how to spend existing E-Rate money in a different way rather than suggesting ways for the FCC to save money.

The GAO report does a great job of describing the homework gap. The report discusses challenges that school-age children face in doing homework without a computer. The GAO found that many homes without home broadband rely on cellular connectivity, which is largely inadequate for doing homework. The report points out the shortcoming and challenges on the following chart for the alternatives to home broadband such as libraries, community centers, coffee shops, and outdoor WiFi around schools.

The GAO looked into six pilot projects at schools that tried to alleviate the homework gap using wireless technology to connect to students. The GAO pointed out that in 2016 that two schools asked for FCC waivers in the E-Rate program to provide wireless connectivity to students, but the FCC never reacted to the waiver requests.

The GAO concludes the report by recommending that the FCC take steps to assess and publish the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making off-premises wireless access eligible for E-rate support. The has already FCC agreed with GAO’s recommendation, so I’m sure there will be an assessment coming in the near-future.

The Homework Gap

There are numerous studies and also mountains of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students without home broadband lag in academic performance compared to students with home broadband. This problem has come to be called the homework gap.

In a recent article, the Associated Press estimated that 17% of students – 3 million students – don’t have a computer at home. The estimate is that 18% don’t have broadband at home. That same article referenced a major study performed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an agency inside of the US Department of Education. That study compared test scores for 8th grade students both with and without a home computer. The results showed:

  • On tests of reading comprehension, students who have a computer at home had an average score of 268 compared to a score of 247 for students without a computer.
  • In testing for mathematics, students with a computer at home scored 285, while those without score 262.
  • In testing science, students with a computer scored 156 compared to 136 for students without a computer.
  • In testing competency in information and communication technology, students with a home computer scores 152, compared to 128 for students without a home computer.

The NCES also gathered statistics from around the world and they found that in 34 out of 37 countries that students with a home computer outperformed students without a computer in mathematics.

It’s not easy to gather this data. Student populations change every school year. There are also numerous kids in gray areas. For example, there are many students trying to do homework on smartphones – somewhere between having a home computer and not. There are also temporary broadband solutions such as school systems and libraries that lend hot spots to some students.

I’ve worked with several school systems that provide laptops or tablets to all students and then struggle with having to deal with rural students that don’t have a home broadband connection. NCES reports that teachers often modify their curriculum to not disadvantage students without home broadband – literally dumbing down courses for everybody to account for the fact that some students don’t have home broadband.

The homework gap is a problem because other studies have shown that lagging behind in school carries over into adult life. For example, students that lag in school drop out of school at a much higher rate and enroll in college at a much lower rate. Other studies have shown that students that don’t finish high school or enroll in college earn significantly less over a lifetime than students that graduate and/or get at least some college.

When rural communities come to me looking for a broadband solution, the homework gap is often the number one issue. Parents often have to make extraordinary efforts to find access to broadband – such as driving to town nightly to sit outside of hotspots. These parents are among the most vocal proponents for broadband. I’ve found that in rural communities the support for getting broadband for students run deep. My consulting company conducts surveys, and in rural communities we find nearly universal support for finding a local solution for the homework gap.

NCES is worried that the homework gap is growing as more school systems migrate their curriculum online. It’s getting harder for schools to try to accommodate students without broadband or home computers. As a country we pay a lot of lip service to the topic of finding a rural broadband solution – politicians and regulators seem to talk about it non-stop. But if we don’t find a solution there is one thing we know for sure – those 3 million students are not going to do perform as well as everybody else – and that’s a problem that affects all of us. We have to do better.

2.5 GHz – Spectrum for Homework

As part of the effort to free up mid-band spectrum, the FCC is taking a fresh look at the 2.5 GHz spectrum band. This band of spectrum is divided into 33 channels; the lower 16 channels are designated as EBS (Educational Broadband Service) with the remainder as BRS (Broadcast Radio Service).

The EBS band was first granted to educational institutions in 1963 under the designation ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) and was used to transmit educational videos within school systems. It became clear that many schools were not using the spectrum and the FCC gave schools the authority to lease excess capacity on the spectrum for commercial use. In urban markets the spectrum was leased to networks like HBO, Showtime and the Movie Channel which used the spectrum to delivery content after the end of the school day. In the late 1990s the spectrum was combined with MMDS in an attempt to create a wireless cable TV product, but this use of the spectrum never gained commercial traction.

In 1998 the FCC allowed cellular companies to use the leased spectrum for the new 3G cellular. In 1998 the FCC also stopped issuing new licenses for the spectrum band. Companies like Craig McCaw’s Clearwire leased the spectrum to deliver competitive cellular service in many urban areas. In 2005 the FCC cemented this use to allow the spectrum to be used for two-way mobile and fixed data.

Today the technology has improved to the point where the spectrum could help to solve the homework gap in much of rural America. The spectrum can be used in small rural towns to create hot spots that are tied directly to school servers. The spectrum can also be beamed for about 6 miles from tall towers to reach remote students. The spectrum has nearly the same operating characteristics as the nearby 2.4 GHz WiFi band, meaning that long-distance connections require line-of-sight, so the spectrum is more useful is areas with wide-open vistas than in places like Appalachia.

A group of educational organizations including the Catholic Technology Network, the National EBS Association, the Wireless Communications Association International and the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network petitioned the FCC to expand the EBS network and to grant new EBS licenses to fully cover the country. The FCC has been considering a plan that would strengthen the educational use of the spectrum and which would also auction the rest of the spectrum for use as wireless broadband.

The use of the spectrum for rural educational uses could be transformational. Rural students could get a small dish at their homes, like is done with the fixed wireless deployed by WISPs. Students would them have a direct connection to the school systems servers for doing homework. Interestingly, this would not provide a home with regular Internet access, other than what might be granted by schools for links needed for doing homework.

The disposition of the spectrum band is complicated by the fact that Sprint holds much of the spectrum under long-term lease. Sprint holds licenses to use more than 150 MHz of the spectrum in the top 100 markets in the country, which currently provides them with enough spectrum to simultaneously support both 4G LTE and 5G. The speculation is that the FCC is working on a plan to free up some of this spectrum as a condition to the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.

This is the only current spectrum band where the FCC is envisioning different urban and rural uses, with rural parts of the country able to use the spectrum to connect to students while in urban areas the spectrum is used to support 5G. This divided use was only made possible by the historic educational component of the spectrum. If the FCC tries to give all of this spectrum to the cellular carriers they’d have to reclaim the 2,200 licenses already given to school systems – something they are politically unwilling to tackle.

However, this solution points to a wider solution for rural residential broadband. The FCC could order the same type of rural/urban bifurcation for many other bands of spectrum that are used primarily in urban settings. We need to find creative ways to use idle spectrum, and this spectrum bank provides a roadmap that ought to be applied to other swaths of spectrum.

Freeing the spectrum for full use by rural education offers big potential, but also creates challenges for rural school systems which will have to find the money to build and deploy wireless networks for homework. But solving the rural homework gap is compelling and I’m sure many school districts will tackle the issue with gusto.

Is the Lifeline Program in Danger?

FCC_New_LogoOne has to ask if the FCC’s Lifeline program is in trouble. First, within the last month 80 carriers have asked to be relieved from participating in the program. This includes many of the largest ISPs / telcos and includes AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Charter, Cox, Frontier, Fairpoint, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell. There are a lot of wireless companies on the list and it’s easier to understand why they might not want to participate. The rest of the list is filled out with smaller telcos and some fiber overbuilders.

These companies easily represent more than half of all the telephone customers and a significant percentage of data customers in the country. If these companies don’t participate in the Lifeline program then it’s not going to be available to a large portion of the country. The purpose of the Lifeline program is to provide assistance to low-income households to buy telecom services. It’s hard to see how the program can be sustained with such a reduced participation.

Originally the program was used only to subsidize landline telephone service. For the las few years it also has been available to cover cellphone service as an alternative to a landline. The most recent changes expand the definition to also allow the plan to cover broadband connections, with the caveat that only one service can be subsidized per household. While it’s not yet official, one can foresee that ultimately it will be used to subsidize only broadband and that coverage of telephones will eventually disappear.

The coverage that the new Lifeline provides for cellular data is a mystery. The plan covers 3G data connections and allows the providers to cap such services at a measly 500 megabytes of total downloaded per month. This seems to be in direct opposition to the stated goal of the Lifeline program to provide support to close the ‘homework gap’.

I also foresee larger problems looming for the entire Universal Service Fund program, of which Lifeline is one component. It’s already clear that the new administration is going to remake the FCC to be a weaker regulatory body. At a minimum the new FCC will reverse many of the regulations affecting the large telcos and cable companies.

But there is a bigger threat in that there are many in Congress that have been calling for years for the abolishment of the FCC and for scattering their responsibilities to other parts of the government. This could be done during budget appropriations or by including it in a new Telecom Act.

The opponents of the FCC in Congress have also specifically railed against the Lifeline program for years. There was a huge furor a few years ago about the so-called Obamaphones, where carriers were supposedly giving smartphones to customers, all paid for by the government. It turns out those claims were false. The only plan that was anywhere close to this was a plan from SafeLink Wireless. They used the Lifeline subsidy to provide eligible low-income households with a cheap flip-phone that came with one-hour of free calling plus voice mail. This very minimalist telephone connection gave people a way to have a phone number to use while hunting for a job and to connect with social services. But there were no Lifeline plans that provided smartphones to low income households like was portrayed by many opponents of the Lifeline program.

But rightly or wrongly, there are now a number of opponents to the Lifeline program, and that means that the plan could be a target for those trying to trim back the FCC. It’s going to be a lot harder to defend the Lifeline program if none of the major carriers are participating in it. There certainly will be a lot of changes made in the coming year at the FCC, and my gut tells me that programs like Lifeline could be on the chopping block if the big players in the industry don’t support it. If nothing else, the big ISPs would prefer to have funds allocated to Lifeline today to be re-purposed for something that benefits them more directly.

Note:  In an interesting development the FCC just rejected a petition from the NTCA and the WTA that asked that small companies be excused from some provisions of the Lifeline order. The FCC ruling basically says that any small company that is receiving high cost support and that offers a standalone data product must accept requests from customers who want to participate in the Lifeline Program. I am sure that this is not the end of the story and there will be more back and forth on the issue.

The Homework Gap

Generic-office-desktop2A newly released Pew Research Center poll looks at the impact of household income on the percentage of homes with Internet connectivity. The study shows that homes with children and with annual household incomes under $50,000 have significantly lower broadband penetration than higher income homes.

FCC Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement after the release of the poll and called this phenomenon the ‘homework gap”. There have been discussions since the 1990s about the digital divide; this survey shows that the divide is still there and that it correlates with household income.

This finding comes at a time when computers are routinely integrated into schools. Most classrooms and schools now have computers. Also, though I was unable to tie down any precise statistic, what I’ve read suggests that a majority of teachers assign homework that requires a computer. There is also a new way of teaching becoming vogue. Referred to as the ‘flipped classroom’, this teaching philosophy requires students to watch videos and other online content at home and be prepared to discuss the materials in class (as opposed to the traditional way of showing content in class).

As somebody who has been helping carriers sell into different kinds of neighborhoods for years, the statistics are not surprising to me. The Pew study shows that over 31% of households with children do not have high-speed Internet at home. This low-income group makes up about 40% of all households with school age children. This contrasts to only 8% of homes with kids who make over $50,000 that lack Internet access.

The study looked at a wide range of incomes and is one of the more complete surveys I’ve seen showing broadband penetration rates. For example, it shows that all households under $25,000 per year have a 60% penetration of broadband while households making more than $150,000 per year have a penetration of 97%.

One thing this study didn’t consider was the other digital divide, which is the urban/rural one. According to the FCC statistics, there are at least 14 million homes in the country that don’t have physical access to broadband. And as I’ve written a number of times, I think that number is too low and skewed due to the underlying statistics being self-reported by the large carriers.

The FCC is considering if it should expand its Lifeline program to include broadband coverage for low-income households. Today that fund will chop a few dollars per month off of a phone for low-income families. The Universal Service Fund spends approximately $1.5 B per year for the program.

I understand the sentiment behind this kind of assistance. But I would be surprised if a few dollars per month will make much impact on whether a household can afford to buy broadband. It’s going to take a whole lot more than $1.5 billion per year to solve the obviously large gap for student homes without broadband. And of course, such a program will do no good in those rural places where no broadband exists.

This is not going to be an easy issue to solve. To close this gap we have to find a way to get broadband into many millions more homes. But we also would need to make sure that those homes have working computers that are up to the tasks required by homework. I’ve seen numerous studies over the years that show that low-income households have an equally low penetration of home computers as they do broadband. There are many school systems today that give laptops to kids for the school year and perhaps that would at least solve half of the issue if this was more widespread. But until all kids in a school can use those laptops at home, the kids without internet access are going to fall behind those that have it.