The initiative, called ConnectED, requires no action from Congress and calls on businesses, states, districts and communities to support Obama's vision of high-speed broadband and wireless access at the nation's schools and libraries. Currently, the average school has the same connectivity as a household, but serves 200 times more users. Only about 20% of educators feel their school's broadband meets their teaching needs, according to the White House.
The president has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its $2.3 billion-dollar E-Rate program to provide resources for ConnectED. E-Rate is part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), which helps schools and libraries obtain telecommunications, broadband and internal network services at discounted rates. According to administration officials, the effort would need an investment of several billion dollars, which could potentially be collected in a few years by charging Americans less than $5 per year on their phone bills. It's still unclear whether the FCC will pursue that option, since it has yet to review existing funding and the initiative's requirements.
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The FCC made some upgrades to its E-Rate program in 2010. Changes included easier access for users to "dark" fiber networks and a new funding index formula to keep pace with inflation. However, E-Rate and the USF need more upgrading for the plan to work, Obama said when announcing ConnectED.
AT&T responded to the announcement, suggesting specific changes. "The USF contribution methodology must be updated to encompass more than the legacy services assessed today as we transition to the all-IP communications networks of tomorrow. In addition, the very cumbersome rules surrounding the current e-Rate program simply must be streamlined and made more efficient," AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said in a written statement.
In addition to bringing high-speed connectivity to schools, ConnectED intends to train teachers to integrate technology in their classrooms and to use digital education tools such as interactive online lessons. Obama has asked the federal government to tap into existing funds to make this happen.
The final goal of ConnectED is to build on private-sector innovation. Schools have the opportunity to bring "feature-rich educational devices" to classrooms. Such devices, increasingly available at lower prices, could cost school districts even less if they come together to purchase in volume. With faster Internet and better devices, "students can have access to more rigorous and engaging classes, new learning resources, rich visualizations of complex concepts and instruction in any foreign language," said a White House document outlining the initiative.
ConnectED is part of a larger broadband plan introduced by the Obama administration in 2011. The fiscal 2012 budget included $18 billion in federal funds to connect 98% of the U.S. population to broadband Internet through mobile devices over the next five years.