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Ed-Tech Groups to Congress: More Than $5 Billion Needed to Address Internet Access Gaps

Leaders of education technology groups are urging Congress to provide more than $5 billion in funds to help millions of U.S. families access the Internet.

More than 7 million households in the U.S. are currently cut off from Internet access--they both don't have it and can't afford it, according to data presented by John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, during a Zoom webinar Tuesday. Millions more have broadband service in their communities but lack the means to access it, Harrington said.

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) has filed a bill that would provide $2 billion to address these issues, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ma.) is planning this week to propose an updated bill with a proposal for double that amount. 

The need is particularly urgent, leaders argued, because some schools may need to maintain remote learning for at least some students this fall to help prevent further spread of COVID-19. "It is important that we do this now so that we can use the summer months to prepare to help get those families connected," said Candice Dodson, executive director of State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Harrington and other advocates believe the federal government should direct $5.25 billion through the existing e-rate program, allowing schools to begin accessing money as early as July.

Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium of School Networking, wants to see a portion of those funds allocated to cybersecurity measures that address the surge of students and teachers accessing school networks from home.

"We're finding one of the challenges of having students and teachers at home using their own devices and their own networks--often they're distracted by pets or siblings or elderly care. They're clicking on phishing emails at rates industry tells us are ten times higher than just a few months ago," Krueger said.

Ransomware attacks have been on the rise in recent years, and K-12 is widely cited as a vulnerable sector. Those attacks could be more devastating than usual for schools, said Krueger. Ordinarily, losing Internet access temporarily in the school building is inconvenient, but when everyone is learning online, "that same ransomware can go from being an inconvenience to meaning that school is closed," he said. (Read Education Week's recent special report on cybersecurity, and this guide to cybersecurity risks during COVID-19, for more on addressing these threats.)

Harrington's firm, which helps schools and libraries navigate the Federal Communications Commission's e-rate program, estimates that $4.29 billion is needed to provide off-campus Internet connections. Another $1.79 billion is needed to ensure every student has a digital device, and $1.46 billion is needed for cybersecurity support. That amounts to more than $7 billion--$5.25 billion of which would come from new legislation in Congress, and schools would tap into the Education Stabilization Fund afforded by last month's federal stimulus.

The digital divide highlights broader societal inequities as well. A report published this month from the Colorado Futures Center says more than 54,000 school-age children in the state don't have internet access at home. Of those, more than two-thirds are Hispanic, the majority live in low-income households, and more than 50 percent have parents in one of the 12 industries deemed by the governor as essential during the pandemic.

Absent broader solutions, schools have been purchasing wi-fi hotspots for students; establishing parking lots and roving school buses as Internet access points; installing antennas atop school buildings; and partnering with public television stations to share instruction at a distance.


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