Philly’s Hard Lesson on Access, and Why 81,000 Chromebooks May not Help Students Learn

“It becomes sort of futile to provide the Chromebooks if we’re not providing the internet access,”

Philly’s problem is America’s problem.  If you want to go to school, see a doctor, apply for a job, enroll in training, or get government benefits—you need a computer and internet.  Internet access is an essential public utility.  However, in most cases it is privately owned, and those owners can set the terms of use.   This has left millions of America’s most vulnerable students outside the digital schoolhouse door.  The Federal Communications Commission with power to regulate these companies, so far has played castrato, in this operatic tragedy.

A recent article on the Philadelphia schools system’s herculean effort to provide 81,000 Chromebooks to children only to discover that internet providers would not let them online is emblematic of things to come.

This from the Philadelphia Inquirer

As the pandemic forced tens of thousands of Philadelphia students into online-only education, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. asked Comcast and other internet providers to open their WiFi networks so all students could learn through their laptops — but all refused, he said Wednesday.

Addressing City Council as it considers School District funding for next year, Hite said internet access remains a “critical infrastructure issue,” and if public schools require children to use the internet for educational purposes, that access should be free in the way that school meals are free to low-income families.

The School District has distributed more than 81,000 Chromebooks to students in an effort to keep them learning while schools are closed for face-to-face instruction. But just 57% of students are participating in some way, according to the most recent district data, and officials say a lack of wireless access is in part to blame.

“It becomes sort of futile to provide the Chromebooks if we’re not providing the internet access,” Councilmember Cindy Bass said.

When Access to School is Held Hostage

So, the ability to even attend schools is held hostage by Broadband companies?  This is the country we live in?

It sure is.  And it’s not just in Philly.  Its here too, OUSD and the City’s so-called “Oakland Undivided” plan depends on the tender mercies of broadband providers.  Who right now are waiving fees and restrictive policies, but will they in 3 months? a year? two?  Or once every child is completely dependent upon them, maybe they jack up the prices and jack up the restrictions. 

We already know that families are going hungry and struggled to pay bills even before COVID.  It is worse now and will stay worse for many underserved families.  They will be the ones who are locked outside the virtual schoolhouse door, unable to pay the fees, and relegated to being a digital untouchable.

The FCC can Solve this

Oakland has had its own fights on this same exact ground, so has Trenton NJ, NYC, Podunk, and every other jurisdiction in the damn country.  Broadband access is a public utility but it is put in private hands with no real investment in the public purposes.  And while they might be laying a bit low now, wait till the pandemic is officially over, but distance schooling is not.  Then the real price gouging will begin, and it won’t stop.

This should not depend on every City organizing against every broadband provider.  It is a universal problem that requires universal action.  That is where the FCC should step in.

Their mission is to “regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.”

And they list their first strategic priority as closing the digital divide

Strategic Goal #1

Closing the Digital Divide

Develop a regulatory environment to encourage the private sector to build, maintain, and upgrade next-generation networks so that the benefits of advanced communications services are available to all Americans. Where the business case for infrastructure investment doesn’t exist, employ effective and efficient means to facilitate deployment and access to affordable broadband in all areas of the country.

It’s time they used their authority and actually implemented their strategic priority.  They should require broadband companies to open hotspots and provide free, no strings attached internet to every family that needs it.  It’s a simple concept.  Children need internet to go to school and school is compulsory, so internet should be provided in the same way textbooks are, or a ramp for a student in a wheelchair.

We need an educational “lifeline” program.  The rest of us can pay a little more, and we can promise the thousands of unconnected and underconnected youth in Oakland access as well as the tens of millions nationwide.  We could also expand the funding and change the rules of the major federal funding program, E Rate, to pay for home connectivity.

No child should be shut out of the school house because their family cannot afford the school fees, we need FREE, no strings attached internet, for all children that need it.  It’s a simple concept that acknowledges a changed reality.  So I hope the FCC can catch up, fulfill its mission and actually do what it says it is trying to do—serve the public and end the digital divide.

Our babies deserve no less.

What do you think?

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