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Corporations Pledge to Help Schools Improve Internet Access

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President Obama is expected today to announce that major corporations will commit more than $750 million to improve technology access in schools and low-income households, as part of an overall federal push to increase students' connectivity to the Internet.

Obama is scheduled to tout those efforts in a speech at the Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., in remarks that will help flesh out the details of a plan he previewed in his State of the Union speech last week.

The president has set the goal of providing 99 percent of the nation's schools with access to high-speed broadband technology within five years. Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would expand funding on broadband through the E-rate program from $1 billion to $2 billion annually, for a total increase of $2 billion.

In a briefing with reporters Monday in advance of president's speech in Maryland, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, predicted that the new money for broadband would be a first step toward connecting 20 million young people in 15,000 schools.

"ConnectED is not fundamentally about wires and wireless; it's about young people and whether they're learning in a 21st century classroom," he said. "You cannot have the vision of every child working at their desk with digital learning ...without high-speed broadband to allow that type of individualized learning."

The E-rate program, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the FCC's direction, provides more than $2 billion annually 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.

The president will tout a commitment from telecom companies to advance digital learning. AT&T is pledging more than $100 million to provide middle school students free wireless Internet connectivity for three years, he said. Sprint is also making a commitment valued at $100 million over four years, to offer free wireless for up to 50,000 low-income families, to help young people "cross the digital divide" since they need connectivity at home as well as in school. 

Verizon, through the Verizon Foundation, will invest up to $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions in current and new initiatives, to accelerate professional development for teachers on how to effectively use technology to boost student achievement in STEM.

Another group of companies—Apple, Microsoft, Autodesk, and O'Reily Media in partnership with Safari Books Online —is offering their products to schools for free or at discounted prices. For instance, Apple has pledged to distribute $100 million worth of iPads, MacBooks and other products to disadvantaged schools.

Microsoft has agreed to lower the cost of Windows-based devices for U.S. public school classrooms nationwide, and offer 12 million copies of Microsoft Office 365 Education software free to disadvantaged students.

A Microsoft announcement placed the value of savings at $1 billion, adding that, "Through this program, access to unique, offerings that before were only available to financial need-based institutions, will now be available for all U.S. public schools. This includes hardware, collaboration software and teacher training resources."

"Education transformation is happening now and technology is the tool that not only will enhance the work of our educators, but will allow a more immersive, engaging experience for our students," said Margo Day, vice president, U.S. Education, Microsoft Corp., in the statement.

Sperling said Autodesk is pledging to make the company's Design the Future program available to every secondary school in the country, offering software valued at more than $250 million. And O'Reilly Media's partnership with Safari Books Online will provide content to every school in the United States, he said. The value of that commitment is also $100 million, he said.

On the topic of the FCC's $2 billion infusion, Sperling confirmed that those federal funds would come from rechanneling existing E-rate resources. He reiterated Obama's pledge that the FCC's plan will not add "a dime to the deficit."   

Check back later today for an update after the president's speech for more details and reaction.


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