Without Internet Access, Our Most Vulnerable Children Are Locked Outside the Digital Schoolhouse Door

Philadelphia’s problem is America’s problem. If you want to go to school, see a doctor, apply for a job, enroll in training or receive government benefits—you need a computer and an internet connection.

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 reality has left millions of America’s most vulnerable students outside the digital schoolhouse door. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the power to regulate these companies, but 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 Wi-Fi 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 Philadelphia. It’s happening in Oakland, California, too. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the city’s so-called “Oakland Undivided” plan depend on the tender mercies of broadband providers, who right now are waiving fees and restrictive policies, but will they in 3 months? One year? Two? Oo once every child is completely dependent upon them, will they jack up the prices and jack up the restrictions?

We already know that families were going hungry and struggled to pay bills even before COVID-19. It is worse now and it will stay this way 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 Problem

So, Oakland has had its own fights on this same exact ground. And so has Trenton New Jersey, New York City, 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 public purposes. And while these companies may be laying a bit low now, wait until the pandemic is officially over, but distance learning is not. Then the real price gouging will begin—and it won’t stop.

The solution 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 can and should step in.

Its 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

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 the FCC used its authority and actually implement its strategic priority. The FCC should require broadband companies to open hotspots and provide free, no strings attached internet to every family who needs it. It’s a simple concept. Children need the internet to go to school and school is compulsory, so the internet should be provided in the same way textbooks are, or the way a ramp is provided 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 disconnected 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 schoolhouse because their family cannot afford the school fees, we need free, no strings attached internet, for all children who 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.

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