ISPs, FCC Urged To Lower Student Broadband Costs

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (September 23, 2020, 10:00 PM EDT) -- Public advocates on Wednesday called on the Federal Communications Commission to expand student internet funding to cover at-home service, and for internet service providers to extend more generous and realistic student plans.

In a virtual press conference organized by MediaJustice, student activist Kimberly Vasquez described how Comcast's Internet Essentials plan for low-income households claims to support an entire family's broadband needs. However, she said it isn't sufficient for a single high school student to complete online coursework.

Vasquez, a Baltimore high school student, said she joined the Wednesday event using her phone's mobile signal because it's more reliable than her family's connection, which can barely support one Zoom video call at its top speeds.

"The only barrier to my success is not having the internet that allows me and my sisters to actually stay online," Vasquez said. "Being a subscriber to Comcast's Internet Essentials puts me and my sisters in a position to forcibly decide whose education is more important. We shouldn't have to choose who will sacrifice their education and fall behind in order for one of us to succeed."

Comcast and other ISPs are touting partnerships with school districts at a time when students across the country are homebound due to COVID-19. Two such programs announced in recent weeks are T-Mobile's Project 10Million — which offers students a number of free data-capped wireless hotspots and access to at-cost tablets and laptops via school districts — and the cable industry's K-12 Bridge to Broadband, which partners ISPs with school districts to connect families in need with low-cost broadband service.

Although national regulators and companies profess to be working to ensure at-home internet access, both families and school districts are struggling to shoulder the now-essential internet costs,according Angela Cobián, a Denver Public Schools Board of Education member.

Cobián said her district has spent $900,000 on hot spots for students and plans to spend about $5.6 million more on student at-home devices. To help, the FCC should allow federal E-Rate subsidy funds to cover at-home connections instead of only servicing school campuses and raise the minimum speeds that the service covers, she said.

Applying E-Rate funds to these home connections would allow the district to go from paying $10 per month per home to $2 a month. That would be a "significant contribution to closing our massive budget deficit," said Cobián, who noted Denver Public Schools is grappling with a $65 million budget gap.

ISPs also have a responsibility to offer more comprehensive plans that can affordably and realistically get families like Vasquez' online, said Franca Muller Paz, an elected representative in the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Although Comcast showcases its partnerships with school districts, Paz said it often only offers minimum service speeds and is running up hefty bills for emergency student access that school districts will have to pay.

Comcast "celebrates their partnerships with schools, but we need to think about how they're using this partnership," she said. "With the amount of money that Comcast stands to make it, doesn't sound much like a partnership at all."

--Editing by Breda Lund.

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