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Broadband to the Classroom

Obama Disses Digital Promise to U.S. Kids

by DAVID ROSEN

President Obama recently began a new economic offensive, a wake-up call about the Great Recession’s sputtering recovery and, in particular, the growing inequality among Americans.  As with his comments following the shameful decision in the Zimmerman case, the President — and his administration — periodically waves the flag about a serious social issue but does very little to serious address it.  Nothing better illustrates this phenomenon then his well meaning if spineless comments about bringing broadband Internet communications to all American schools and libraries.

Visiting the Mooresville (NC) Middle School on June 6th, the President declared:  “In an age when the world’s information is just a click away, it demands that we bring our schools and libraries into the 21st century. …  We can’t be stuck in the 19th century.”

Sadly, if only we were in the 19th century, the U.S. would be at the beginning of its ascendency, the nation’s the infrastructure that sustained long-term growth was being put into place.  The transcontinental railroad system was being laid – the 1st spike driven while the country was fighting the Civil War.  Almost a century ago, in 1914, Pres. Teddy Roosevelt placed one of the first coast-to-coasts telephone calls.  The “American Century” was being established – and now it is over.

The current “crisis” of broadband Internet in the nation’s schools is long in coming.  In fact, since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, every preceding administration (and particularly the FCC) has colluded with private telecom and cable companies to limit the broadband upgrading of the nation’s communications infrastructure.  It is one example of why the U.S. has become a 2nd-rate communications nation.

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At his Mooresville address, the president called for every school not simply to be connected to the Internet, but reach 99 percent of students and libraries with high-speed wired and/or wireless broadband at data rates of no less than 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and 1 Gbps by 2018.

The federal program to bring broadband to schools and libraries is known as ConnectED and is backed by the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  The ConnectED is funded through a program known as the E-Rate.  It was established in 1997 and has helped increase the number of classrooms connected to the Internet from 14 percent to 97 percent.

However, as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently noted, “The problem now is not connection, its capacity.”  Current, more then 80 percent of the nation’s educators believe that the Internet connections at their schools do not meet their teaching needs.  In addition, neither the president nor the White House provided a detailed plan as to how the U.S. is to achieve this lofty goal. One can only assume that this program will be taken up — or not! — by the soon-to-be-confirmed new head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler.

According to the American Library Association, in 2012, 89 percent of nation’s nearly 17,000 public libraries provided Wi-Fi access, and about three-quarters of these reported an increase in the use of their Wi-Fi.  Many libraries keep their Wi-Fi signal on 24/7 and are witnessing an increase in what is known as “parking lot” users, people who don’t have Internet access at home and use a local library’s free Wi-Fi connectivity at off-hours from a near-by parking lot or other venue.  American’s need to be connected otherwise they’ll be 2nd-class citizens.

As Com. Rosenworcel acknowledged, “year-in and year-out, the demand for E-Rate dollars is double the amount the Commission [FCC] makes available ….”   E-Rate dollars – and we’re speaking of billions of dollars – come from the Universal Service Fund (USF) that adds around 15 percent to your communications bill for all interstate services, whether long distance, wireless services and parts of the local bill.  It is one of the grand tax scams, no wonder it’s often called the Universal Slush Fund.

The USF was initally designed to ensure that all Americans have phone service and to pay for schools and libraries to get services.  The largest portion of the fund is called the “high-cost” fund and goes directly to phone and cable companies offering service in rural areas.   It is seen by as a slush fund riddled with fraud.  It is imposed without provisions for an audit to determine the total amont of money collected by the phone company.  According to one estimate, the E-Rate has absorbed between 26 and 40 percent of USF funds “and the program has doled out more than $25 billion since its inception in 1998.”

Cable companies have received subsidies from the FCC through what is known as the Social Contract to “complete certain upgrades and improvements.”  For example, Comcast agreed to provide free modems and online service to 4,000 public and private elementary and high schools and up to 250 public libraries.  In return, Comcast was permitted to create “product tiers in those systems which had not been previously granted comparable tier flexibility.”  Sadly, there appears to be no FCC report as to whether Comcast met these system upgrade requirements.

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One of the little reported ironies of the president’s Mooresville address was that Time Warner Cable, one of North Carolina’s leading ISPs, was a major backer of a bill in the state legislature (as well as in South Carolina) to restrict meaningful competition.  The bill is designed to ban or restrict localities from deploying municipal broadband services, thus challenging private telecoms.  In addition, it was the slowest cable operators to offer what’s known as “DOCSIS 3.0” – for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification – permitting high-speed data to run over a conventional coaxial cable line.

Over the last three decades, a new economic and social order has remade the nation.  Reagan brought Thatcherism to America, promoting privatization through government collusion with private corporations.  This tendency was consolidated under Clinton, who facilitated the dominance of finance capital.  Bush-II squandered the nation’s wealth with off-the-books illegal wars and the growing tyranny of the security state.  Obama has adopted a thumb-in-the-dyke strategy, promoting a corporatist status quo while holding back the worst excess of corporate greed.

Today, the U.S. is in the midst of a great restructuring, being recast amidst a national and global economic and social reordering.  The long drawn out recession has been marked by unwinnable wars, high corporate profits, a stagnant job market and growing economic inequality.  They are symptoms of this great restructuring.  So too is the inability to deliver Internet broadband services to the nation’s schools and libraries.  Sadly, one more Obama promise will likely not to be kept.

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net