In the wake of the release of the National Broadband Plan by the Federal Communications Commission this spring, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is pressing for action on his bill to expand the 14-year-old E-Rate program intended to close the “digital divide.”
The original program concentrated efforts on public schools, and Markey wants it to begin providing computers in the homes of low-income students.
Markey authored the original E-Rate bill, which President Clinton signed in to law in 1996, that used federal funds to help schools link up to the Internet. The congressman said 95 percent of public school classrooms now have Internet access, compared to just 14 percent when the original law went into effect.
Expanding Telecom’s Reach
Markey said in a press release he wants to increase the range of telecom devices and services accessible to low-income students, such as residential broadband services and access to e-books for classroom lessons. The bill would allow the current $2.25 billion cap on the E-Rate program to increase with inflation.
Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based telecom and wireless analyst, questions the proposed expansion of the program’s goals. He said Markey wants the government to reach farther than it should.
“The idea behind bringing this level of Internet and connectivity to everyone is a noble idea, but it is just not possible unless we change the Internet from a media-type service that is commercially supported, to a mandate for everyone and supported by taxes and the government—meaning the taxpayers,” Kagan said.
A Right to Internet Service?
Kagan says American society has to “make the decision: Is this a commercial service, or is this a right to be supplied by the government?”
“If it is supplied by the government, that may work for school itself, but what about when the student goes home?” Kagan asked. “How do they do homework? Do we make sure everyone has a government-paid-for laptop and high-speed Internet connection at home too? That will crank up the cost to an even higher level, opening up even more questions.
“This idea sounds great, and in a perfect world it may work,” he added. “But in our imperfect world, where would it end? Would we ever know? We already have a 95 percent success rate. How much would it cost to bring this service to the other 5 percent?”
Caution Called For
“Technology is very important to the way we live, work, and play,” said Randy Skoglund, executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership in Washington, DC. “In order for our children to compete in the global marketplace, they need to be well trained in the technology.
“But we need to be careful when using taxpayer funds, that we do not discourage innovation or private investment in our technology and technology infrastructure,” he said. “It should not be the role of government to mandate the technology and infrastructure in our schools,” he said.