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About That Broadband "Downpayment" Announced By the President...

In order to provide schools with greater access to high-speed Internet connections, the heads of major technology and other companies are lining up to support an overhaul of the federal E-rate program—and, in some cases at least, they are apparently willing to put their money where their mouths are.

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that "with the support of the [Federal Communications Commission] and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we've got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit."

Broadband and ed-tech advocates promptly hailed the statement on Twitter and elsewhere:

The morning after, however, details on that "down payment" were scant. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education declined to provide any further information, and a fact sheet issued by the White House indicated only that "in the coming weeks the President will announce new philanthropic partnerships" that will involve the companies he mentioned Tuesday.

Apple, Sprint, and Verizon all confirmed their involvement with PC Mag, but again, sans details.

A San Francisco-based nonprofit, meanwhile, told Education Week that it "helped bring in the 'downpayment' partners announced by the President," but— you guessed it— was not yet ready to provide details. The group, EducationSuperHighway, did release Thursday a letter signed by about 50 CEOs calling the E-rate to be overhauled to prioritize "upgrading America's K-12 Internet infrastructure and help schools dramatically lower the cost of bandwidth" and "using E-rate funds to provide the capital investment to connect our school districts to high-speed fiber networks."

Among the signatories are the heads of Google, Dell, Facebook, eBay, Hewlett Packard, Khan Academy, and more.

In December, EducationSuperHighway received $9 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Startup:Education, a project of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The E-rate program is administered by the FCC and provides more than $2 billion each year to subsidize schools and libraries to purchase telecommunications services at discounted prices. The money comes from fees charged to telecoms, most of which are passed on to consumers.

In June, after the president set a goal of establishing high-speed Internet connections for 99 percent of U.S. schools within five years, the FCC embarked on a long-awaited overhaul of the E-rate program. Comments flooded in from industry, advocacy groups, and educators this fall, and specific proposals from the commission are expected to be issued soon.

It will be interesting to see how big tech businesses, particularly some of the telecoms President Obama mentioned as "downpayment" contributors, choose to get involved; as Education Week has reported, issues such as pricing transparency and supporting districts in building their own fiber networks remain contentious, with advocacy groups like EducationSuperHighway strongly in favor and many companies strongly opposed.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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