student on computer

E-rate schools and libraries program funding should be used toward the cost of wireless or wireline connectivity for home broadband for students and teachers, said Microsoft in a video meeting with FCC officials last week. Microsoft estimates that over 19 million U.S. children are in households that are not using the internet at broadband speeds.

The recently adopted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included $7.1 billion to boost the budget for the FCC Universal Service Fund (USF) E-rate program. Microsoft’s recommendations were made in response to a request for comment about how to use that funding.

Traditionally, use of E-rate funding was restricted to broadband connectivity within and to schools and libraries, but the COVID pandemic has created a boom in remote learning, which in turn has highlighted the lack of broadband in many student and teacher homes, thereby prompting the change in policy.

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E-rate Home Broadband

Microsoft’s estimate of the 19 million student homes not using the internet at broadband speeds was based on census data and on anonymized internet usage data collected by the company. The company defined “broadband speeds” to include connectivity at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. There are 34.5 million U.S. homes with school age children, according to Microsoft.

Some students lack broadband at home because it isn’t available in their area, while others lack the service because the household cannot afford it. In its meeting with the FCC, Microsoft took the opportunity to highlight its ongoing initiatives to improve broadband availability, affordability and adoption. The company uses the name Airband for these programs.

On the availability side, the company works with service providers, primarily fixed wireless providers, to bring broadband to unserved rural areas. On the affordability and adoption side, the company has digital equity and economic opportunity programs in eight cities that seek to “measurably improve affordable broadband access and adoption for communities of color, especially black and African American communities.” The eight cities are Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee and New York.

Microsoft also took the opportunity to discuss the ability of the FCC to use SmartNoise, a platform developed by Microsoft and Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, to open up the new broadband mapping data that the FCC will be collecting. In a letter about its E-rate home broadband meeting with the FCC, Microsoft noted that it demonstrated how the commission could use machine learning to predict broadband availability and improve the quality of its maps.

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