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Why the FCC pays for landlines but not broadband Internet

A child on a school computer.

In a speech today, President Barack Obama talked up plans to give all schools fast internet connections. And he came prepared with a sound bite:

 "In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools," he said. 

Many of the high-stakes tests students will take in coming years are administered online. According research by the non-profit Education Superhighway, about a third of schools have enough broadband to give the most advanced tests. The group's director, Evan Marwell, says another third could give more basic online exams. 

"And then we still have a third of our schools that don't have enough bandwitdth to administer a test on a computer," says Marwell.  "That's a problem."

Tomorrow the Federal Communications Commission plans to announce what the President calls "a $2 billion down payment" toward fixing that problem. 

The FCC currently distributes more than that to schools for telecom -- a $2.4 billion fund called E-Rate, paid for out of fees collected by telecom companies. But so far, only half of E-Rate's money goes toward broadband connections. Some pays for cellphones, and a quarter of it pays for phone service: -- translation: landlines. 

"That made sense back at the beginning of the program [in 1996]," says Marwell. "How did most schools get on the Internet in 1996? Dial up. But today, how many schools get on the internet with dial up?"

When E-Rate funds do pay for broadband, it turns out that we don’t really know exactly how much bandwidth schools get for the money.

"That would be really useful information," says Danielle Kehl, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

Kehl says the FCC doesn't get information from broadband providers about the rates schools pay and the bandwidth they get. For a simple reason: "They don’t actually ask the telecom providers for that precise information," she says.

She hopes the agency will change that don’t ask, don’t tell practice.  

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.
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