Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Obama administration's ConnectHome initiative offers only partial solution to homework gap

Rather than a bold, disruptive initiative to speed the construction of fiber to the premise (FTTP) Internet infrastructure to serve all Americans and replace aging metallic infrastructure designed for legacy analog telephone and cable TV service that leaves many U.S. homes without Internet service, the Obama administration today announced a weak, narrowly focused initiative that targets low income households. From a policy perspective, that runs counter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's adoption this year of new regulations classifying Internet as a common carrier telecommunications service that must be universally available to all homes as voice telephone service has been for decades.

The administration's ConnectHome initiative also adopts classic incumbent telephone and cable industry talking points aimed at:

  • Shifting the focus away from the nation's infrastructure deficits by playing up dollars invested in infrastructure and particularly mobile wireless infrastructure that can't provide sufficient bandwidth to serve most homes.
  • Emphasizing Internet adoption and developing "digital literacy" as if it were still the 1990s when the Internet was just emerging and households were using it only for web and email access versus today when the Internet delivers voice and video services as well.

The United States faces a serious telecommunications infrastructure deficit that is reaching crisis proportions as those living in areas without service grow increasingly economically disadvantaged and their properties become less marketable. Data released by the U.S Federal Communications Commission in early 2015 indicate approximately 55 million Americans (17 percent) live in areas unserved for basic Internet service as defined by the FCC, with the gap narrowing by only three percentage points in the last year.

The White House fact sheet on ConnectHome issued today contains a narrowly proscribed analysis of the "homework gap" that occurs when school pupils can't access learning materials at home because their homes lack Internet service:

While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This “homework gap” runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education. 

The homework gap isn't confined solely to low income households. It affects any home located in an area of the nation lacking premise Internet service regardless of socio-economic status. The administration need only ask educators like Jeremy Meyers, superintendent of the El Dorado County (California) Office of Education. Meyers wrote in his community newspaper about the emerging educational method known as "blended learning" in which pupils do much of their learning and class projects outside of the classroom via the Internet. Back in the classroom, teachers review their projects, answer questions and lead discussions.

As Meyers notes, blended learning requires good Internet connectivity both at schools and at students' homes. However, too many homes in Meyers' district lack even basic Internet service. "El Dorado County faces a special challenge that is assuming greater urgency each year: How to bring all our households into broadband Internet access in a cost-effective manner," Meyers wrote. "Having large Internet 'dead zones' is not acceptable in today’s world of connectivity. It limits us academically and hurts us economically."

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