October 03, 2016

Inspired by Hatch HS Student, Udall Calls on FCC to Make Wi-Fi Available on School Buses

Rural and low-income students at risk of falling behind in school because they lack internet access at home

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do more to ensure all students in New Mexico and across the country have equal access to the internet for educational and economic opportunity. Specifically, Udall wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC should extend the successful E-rate program, which pays for internet access in schools, and provide Wi-Fi on school buses so students can have more time to do their homework.

While the E-Rate program has helped ensure schools are equipped with broadband internet, a third of New Mexico households - and homes across the country - still lack access, either because families can't afford it or because it simply isn't available. But with seven in 10 teachers nationwide assigning homework that requires internet access, students without access at home are now at an unfair disadvantage to their peers.

"Broadband should help create educational opportunities for these children, not a new barrier to their success at school," Udall wrote to Wheeler.

The idea of Wi-Fi on school buses was suggested by student athlete Jonah Madrid at a May roundtable discussion Udall hosted at Hatch Valley High School about the "digital divide" or "homework gap" affecting students in rural and low-income communities. Several students told Udall and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who attended the roundtable with Udall, about the hurdles they have to go through to find after-hours Wi-Fi signals. Jonah explained that his varsity football team travels over an hour by school bus to away games. When he gets back, he sometimes does his homework in the school parking lot, just so he can access the Wi-Fi signal. Jonah said he could save time and get home earlier if he could do his homework on the bus.

Udall questioned Rosenworcel about the idea during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month. In today's letter, he formally requested that the FCC use its existing authority to expand the E-Rate program to school buses.

"This strikes me as a bright idea to help extend internet access to students while they travel to and from school. A handful of school districts are already experimenting with this 'Wi-Fi on wheels,'" Udall wrote to Wheeler. "Since schools cannot currently use E-Rate to support such service, however, it is unlikely to reach rural schools in my home state of New Mexico."

Most rural schools in New Mexico will need financial assistance from the federal government to afford school bus Wi-Fi, Udall continued. "If the Commission does not believe that such an initiative is possible under its current authority, I will seek legislation to provide the flexibility to do so. Students in New Mexico and across the country deserve our best efforts to remove barriers to their success in school."

As a member of the Senate Commerce and Appropriations committees, Udall has long advocated for extending broadband internet throughout New Mexico, particularly in highly rural and Tribal communities. The internet is an essential tool for education, economic development, and health care, and he has supported resources to ensure rural communities aren't left behind.

In addition to the roundtable on the homework gap in Hatch, Udall hosted Wheeler at Acoma Pueblo in 2014. There, students are in a very similar position as those in Hatch. The Acoma librarian told Udall and Wheeler that she leaves the Wi-Fi signal on after hours so students can access it to do homework.

A copy of Udall's full letter is here and below:

October 3, 2016

The Honorable Tom Wheeler
Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554


Dear Chairman Wheeler:

I am writing to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take additional steps to close the "homework gap," the digital divide facing too many students from rural areas and low-income families in New Mexico and across the nation.

Today almost all American schools and libraries have internet access thanks in part to sustained investments over the last 20 years from E-Rate, the nation's largest educational technology initiative. In 2014, the Commission significantly upgraded E-Rate to help schools meet growing demand for bandwidth and support innovative digital learning technologies in the classroom. By overcoming geographic distances, such broadband infrastructure can be particularly helpful for rural schools and libraries in my home state of New Mexico.

Yet a digital divide persists for school children across the country. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data, five million American households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. While seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires internet access, one in three households across the country do not have broadband. This "homework gap" especially impacts students from low-income families living and rural areas. Broadband should help create educational opportunities for these children, not a new barrier to their success at school.

In some small towns and Native American communities in New Mexico, students who do not have internet access at home go to school or library parking lots to access free Wi-Fi after hours. When you visited Acoma Pueblo with me in 2014, we heard how the librarian keeps the Wi-Fi signal on after hours for this purpose. At Hatch Valley High School, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and I met young students who cannot complete and submit some homework assignments from home since they do not have internet access or rely on mobile broadband service with data usage caps. So they come to the school parking lot or the local Pic Quik convenience store where free Wi-Fi is available.

A Hatch Valley High School student explained to me that his varsity football team travels over an hour by school bus to away games. When he gets back, he sometime does his homework in the parking lot so he can access the school's Wi-Fi signal. He suggested making Wi-Fi available on school buses. This strikes me as a bright idea to help extend internet access to students while they travel to and from school. A handful of school districts are already experimenting with this "Wi-Fi on wheels." Since schools cannot currently use E-Rate to support such service, however, it is unlikely to reach rural schools in my home state of New Mexico.

I therefore call on the Commission to use its existing authority to allow E-Rate to support school bus Wi-Fi service in a manner that is both technically feasible and economically reasonable.
If the Commission does not believe that such an initiative is possible under its current authority, I will seek legislation to provide the flexibility to do so. Students in New Mexico and across the country deserve our best efforts to remove barriers to their success in school.

Thank you for your consideration and reply. I look forward to working with you on this important issue.