Tuesday, June 11, 2019

FCC To Throttle School Internet

It looks like a bunch of kerfluffling about more of those oddly-named, obscure gummint programs, but the news from the FCC is ominous for schools.

According to edscoop, the FCC has filed a notice of proposed rulemaking intending to cap the FCC's Universal Service Fund. That fund subsidizes broadband infrastructure and access for schools, libraries, and rural communities. It includes the E-Rate program, which helps get wireless internet into schools.

Yeah, that looks speedy.
E-Rate is not without its controversial features. Not everyone likes the funding mechanism, and in the tradition of the finest government programs, it somehow stands accused of coming wrapped in too much red tape AND lacking sufficient oversight and accountability. People smell free federal money, and so we have examples of schools that grab E-Rate money and use it improperly, as well as internet service providers who overcharge the schools they're serving. And that's before we get to the problems that arise with attempting to implement the filtering requirements.

So E-Rate would undoubtedly benefit from an overhaul. But that's not what the FCC is proposing. What they are proposing is a ceiling on USF growth. It wouldn't hit tomorrow-- the suggested cap is $11.42 billion and the 2018 spending for the fund was $8.2 billion. So this is not an immediate assault so much as a ticking delayed choke.

There's another problematic feature of the proposal. There has already been some capping of the individual USF programs (there are four), but this would remove the individual caps and make one single cap for the collective. Meaning that the four programs can go ahead and fight with each other over a limited pie. The other three programs are Lifeline (broadband subsidies for low-income residents), Rural Health Care (supports for rural health care institutions) and Connect America (internet for rural communities).

These are all valuable programs. Lack of internet connection is a serious rural challenge (and I'm talking about areas where there isn't even a smart phone signal to piggyback on). And that goes double for rural health care and the rural poor. You can make jokes about how those folks can just go without Instagram and YouTube, and we certainly need to talk about properly managing the amount of screen time that students get, but for rural teachers, there's a real concern with sending students out into the world who cannot boot up a word processing program or figure out how to do a simple search. I've had the following conversation too many times:

Other Person: Well, the rich folks don't let their kids use screens. And there's no reason for schools to have students in front of a computer screen ever.

Me: But what about students who don't know how to do a search or use basic programs like word processing or presentation programs? What about students how have no sense about or context for privacy and data protection on line?

Other Person: Well, sure, but isn't that stuff that everybody already just kind of knows?

No, it isn't. One of the signs of privilege is that you imagine that some of what you've got just naturally falls like rain on everyone. Computers cost money. Internet access costs money. And in some places, no amount of money will get you a connection, which doubles the pressure on schools that serve students who have no decent internet access at home.

The USF is funded by the various tech companies, who mostly just pass the cost on to customers, and the GOP-led FCC wants to be "fiscally responsible" aka "not taking money away from those hardworking corporations." It also seems to have forgotten its big talk about closing the digital divide in the US. Meanwhile, a not-entirely-trustworthy Microsoft study says that 162 million Americans do not use an internet connection better than 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. Yeah, Microsoft has a vested interest in those results, but even if they're fudging a bit, the takeaway is that many, many people are still peddling a tricycle on the information highway. The FCC is signaling they don't want to help.

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