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The Emergency Connectivity Fund - Should High-Speed Internet Be Considered a Public Utility?

“I think we have to start to look at this and ask ourselves: is access to high-speed internet more of a public utility issue? Is it something that’s absolutely necessary for people to have? Based on what I saw over the last two years, I would say absolutely it is. And it should be considered that way in policy, which will take both the federal level commitment and also commitments by the states and local communities to make that happen.”

Joyce Walters, Executive Director at InvestED

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently hosted a new application window for the Emergency Connectivity Fund. This third application window is intended to support schools and libraries in the upcoming school year as part of the FCC’s effort to support student access to educational opportunities. But why are these programs important? How do they help students? And what are some discrepancies in the impact of state programs as compared to federal programs?

We spoke with Joyce Walters, the executive director of InvestED and an edtech expert, to learn more about the impact of federal versus state programs and policy development aimed at facilitating access to education and learning opportunities for students at state levels and across the nation.

Meet the Expert

Joyce Walters

Joyce Walters, Executive Director at InvestED

Joyce Walters is the executive director of InvestED—a nearly 60-year-old non-profit organization in Washington state. The non-profit helps students in accessing resources ranging from academic support to basic needs.

Walters served as director for Education and Workforce Initiatives at Boeing for over 20 years and also held positions as executive director at Teen Feed, Community Schools in Renton, and Corporate Education Strategies. Walters holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Antioch University Seattle and further education from Gonzaga University.

Q&A with Joyce Walters What factors generally influence discrepancies in access to online educational tools and learning opportunities?

Walters: There are a couple of different factors that really play into this. Number one is always income. You know, that’s always a barrier to connectivity in communities.

The other piece that we run into a lot in Washington state, which people don’t talk about a lot, is that geography is a barrier. Washington state has an initiative in place to get broadband to every single home by 2028. And when you have the Cascade Mountains splitting your state, that’s a huge barrier because a lot of the broadband companies looked over it and said they weren’t going to go into those communities that are nestled in the Cascade Mountains. They weren’t going to go in there for another ten years. So these connectivity policy goals are very aggressive in this state.

It’s really interesting because from a geographical standpoint, the mountains are a barrier. Right? Nobody wants to lay broadband in mountains that shoot up to 15,000 feet, understandably, but a lot of the homes there don’t even have cell phone service. The tall trees and the Cascade Mountains create a barrier even for people to be able to access satellite coverage. So, a lot of those communities can be very, very isolated.

One of the major factors that always comes up in regards to access is funding money. And it’s important to get funding support to help those at various income levels across different communities that are impoverished or the ones that struggle the most to get coverage and connectivity.

Accessing this connectivity is almost on a home-by-home basis in a lot of communities. And in some areas, people are still using dial-up, which is quite primitive by today’s standards. How do federal programs like the Emergency Connectivity Fund compare to state-centered initiatives?

Walters: Anytime you have a program that’s on a grant basis, obviously there are organizations that don’t get funded. You know, I spoke with Senator Patty Murray from Washington State, who is a long-time supporter of digital equity, and she was pushing very hard at the national level on digital equity.

I think that from my vantage point, it’s going to take not just the federal government working with the states, but it’s also going to take regional collaborations and work down to the city level in a lot of cases or even the neighborhood level to be able to solve the issue. And this has a huge impact on students.

I think that one of the things that we noticed during Covid-19 restrictions and school shut-down was how kids are able to access the internet and learning opportunities. What I think people forget a lot is that oftentimes, the fallback for community learning resources and an important piece in our community is public libraries. If kids don’t have [internet] access at home, they can go to their public library. Well, during Covid-19 the libraries were closed.

And so now I think we have to start to look at this and ask ourselves: is access to high-speed internet more of a public utility issue? Is it something that’s absolutely necessary for people to have?

Based on what I saw over the last two years, I would say absolutely it is. And it should be considered that way in policy, which will take both the federal level commitment and also commitments by the states and local communities to make that happen. Where do you generally see resources for online access programs for education leveraged?

Walters: When you’re looking at communities of color, students were impacted very hard and what we found was even in urban areas, it was very difficult from a distribution standpoint to get out a lot of these hot spots to families.

I think districts were so overwhelmed during the Covid-19 shutdowns. Looking at a map, there were rural areas definitely impacted, but there were also pockets within urban areas that were impacted as well. And I think that people just look at a big swath of cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, or Chicago and they think, that’s a big urban area, so they don’t have those connectivity issues.

But when you really scope down into individual communities, that’s when you start to see some of those discrepancies. And by and large, it was a discrepancy in income, often impacting communities of color or those families of lower socioeconomic status in those pockets.

And we knew that underserved communities, especially underserved students, were going to be hurt the most. However, I think that people feel like now we’ve kind of emerged from Covid-19—that it’s over. And it’s not.

For example, we’re working with a family who had a home computer, but the power cord broke and they didn’t have the $40 for the power cord. So the kid was not able to get online to learn.

Even though it may seem like a very small expense to some people, for families that are dealing with poverty, it becomes a question of do they feed their kids or do they buy a power cord? And the answer is they feed their kids.

People are beginning to realize now that for kids to succeed in school, they are going to have to have internet access and they are going to have to have devices in order to do that. In a state like Washington, where they’ve made the commitment by 2028 to have broadband internet access in every home, it shows people and policymakers are beginning to realize that this connectivity is part of whether or not a student succeeds in school. And if they can’t go to the library, we’re going to have to enable students to be able to do that from their homes.

And while luckily Washington state passed that law, there is still the struggle with all of the supply chain issues, which has made it hard to get some of the devices as well. This also extends to the national level, impacting students’ access to learning. It’s a perfect storm. Do you have any advice for policymakers in improving online access to learning tools through development goals and policy decisions?

Walters: I think the first thing is—and I’m very encouraged by what Washington state is doing here—is to put this as an equity access issue at the forefront. They are now basically going into the community and listening to what is actually needed by people struggling to have online access. And I think that that’s a huge piece.

Now, while it may sound like that takes up a lot of time and some may assume that we already know how to tackle the problem, we should just go out there and do it.

But I think the important thing is to slow down. Yes, we should certainly tackle what we can right away, but it’s critical to slow down, listen, and find out what are the challenges each individual community faces because one size does not fit all. It would be great if it did, but as we have seen through the last couple of years with Covid-19 restrictions is that it almost has to be tackled individually, family by family, because the situations are so different.

I also would say to definitely talk with the schools, and I would recommend talking to superintendents and IT people in those districts. Every group is going to have a different set of challenges.

I think that it can be so easy to put in policies at a high level and then say, wow, we did it, but there has to be enough flexibility in that policy to allow for those individualized solutions at the local level.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.