President Obama today is expected to call for a massive upgrade to data connections serving the nation’s schools. Several media outlets report that the president will recommend an initiative aimed at bringing high-speed broadband to nearly all of the nation’s schools within five years. According to the Washington Post, the initiative will be called ConnectED.
According to Hillicon Valley, the target broadband speed is 100 Mbps and the initiative is expected to cost “several billion dollars.”
President Obama is expected to announce the initiative at an event in Moorseville, N.C. this afternoon, where he will visit a school to highlight the benefits the school district has seen since it began providing laptop computers to all students.
If this program actually comes to pass it could be good news for network operators, including those in rural areas that have lagged behind metro areas in broadband availability because the cost of deploying broadband is higher than in urban areas. And as the “middle mile” broadband stimulus program demonstrated, once a community gets high-speed connectivity to the rest of the world via an anchor institution, it’s a lot easier for network operators to find a business case for bringing broadband to individual homes and businesses.
I have some serious doubts about whether this initiative will actually happen any time soon, however.
According to an Associated Press report, how to pay for the program would be up to the FCC. One option would be to use savings from the E-Rate program – a portion of the Universal Service program that funds Internet access in schools and libraries. Another option would be to impose a new temporary surcharge of about five dollars per year on phone bills, the AP reports.
Considering that the entire Universal Service program has an annual budget of $8 billion and the schools and libraries program is one of the smallest segments of that program, I don’t see any way of freeing up “several billion dollars” over five years simply from savings from that program.
And if the FCC were to attempt to impose a five dollar a year surcharge on phone bills, there would likely be strong opposition.
I have to give the president some credit for how he is positioning this, however.
Based on what we’ve heard so far, this isn’t being positioned as a primarily rural program. Ultimately I would assume a large portion of total funding would go to rural areas, as that’s where the cost of bringing broadband to schools would be the greatest. But as much of the dialog around planned Universal Service program reforms reveals, the sad reality is that there are a lot of Americans who couldn’t care less about whether rural America has broadband.
The idea of bringing broadband to schools nationwide is more inclusive and could have a bit better chance of acceptance.
President Obama undoubtedly will point to the improved academic achievement that the North Carolina laptops have provided and will talk about what that bodes for America’s future economic prosperity and global competitiveness.
Those are the same sort of arguments that were made about the space program back when it was in full gear. Some people opposed that, too, but did not succeed in stopping it – at least not for a long time.
A lot has changed since then, though. As a nation we’re less optimistic than we used to be and a lot more cynical about anything the government gets involved in.
The FCC clearly seems to see this, as it has taken no action on reforming the contribution side of the Universal Service program – other than to do its best to cap the program at current levels. Perhaps the president’s speech today will change that. But don’t count on it.