President Obama Outlines ConnectED Expansion

President Barack Obama outlined the expansion of his ConnectED initiative Tuesday, which features both the FCC targeting $2 billion in E-rate funding to high-speed hookups (the FCC already let that cat out of the bag Feb. 3) and a $750 million commitment by the private sector to provide tech, software, home wireless connectivity and teacher development.

The ConnectED program's goal is to provide next generation high-speed access to 99% of schools within five years, with a focus on wireless connectivity as that next generation.

It was the private sector part that the President unveiled in a talk to kids Feb. 4 at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md. That was one of the schools picked in 2011 to integrate tablets into the classroom.

The tech/wireless focus was obvious in the companies singled out for acknowledgement by the White House, which pointed out in announcing the expanded initiative that when the President unveiled ConnectED last June, he did so with the observation that “In a Nation where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” 

"American companies are answering the President’s challenge to 'dig deep' in support of ConnectED to enrich K-12 education, expand opportunities for students, and train, a 21st-century workforce," the White House said in a fact sheet on the new initiative.

They included Apple's pledge of $100 million in iPads, MacBooks, and other products, as well as professional development; AT&T's pledge of $100 million worth of free Internet connectivity for educational devices over their wireless network for three years; Microsoft's commitment to discount Windows to public schools; Sprint's commitment to offer free wireless service for up to 50,000 low income school students over four years—a $100 million value, says the White House; and Verizon's $100 million in "cash and in-kind commitments."

"Now, this is an extraordinary commitment by these business leaders," the President said in his speech. "[B]ut they’re business leaders, so they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their heart.  They want the country to do well, but they also understand that they want educated customers. They want customers who are able to get good jobs, who are going to be using these tools in the future. They want that next young architect coming out of here to be familiar with using that iPad so that they’re designing buildings and using their products."

The expanded ConnectED initiative will also include $10 million in funding from the Department of Agriculture for distance learning in rural schools. The President will also ask for more funding in his FY 2015 budget for "instructional coaches, high-quality digital content, blended learning models, and online communication and collaboration."

The Department of Education is also issuing new guidelines to schools and libraries about how existing federal funds can be best used to support the transition to digital learning.

In advance of the announcement this week, House Republicans wrote the FCC with concerns about the costs of expanding the E-rate program, which is the fund, paid into by telecom companies, that funds advanced telecommunications to schools and libraries.

They echoed that concern Wednesday about the President's announcement.

“Getting groundbreaking and innovative technologies to students across the country is a mission we all share, but we must do so in a cost effective and fiscally responsible manner,” said House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “We look forward to getting additional details from Chairman Wheeler tomorrow and hope to see the administration’s proposal referred to the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service where it will benefit from the board’s significant analysis and expertise. By following an open and transparent process, we can all work together to ensure that children across the country have access to the tools they need to succeed in the information age without reliving the mistakes made with the broadband stimulus programs

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.