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How A Federal Program Will Help Florida Schools Go Wireless

Elle Moxley
StateImpact Indiana

Curtis Lanoue teaches music in a trailer behind Oliver Hoover Elementary School in Miami. His colleagues have interactive smart boards in their classrooms.

Those are like 21st-Century chalk boards that can can plug into the school’s network -- and the Internet.

But Lanoue doesn’t have a smartboard --- or the Internet -- in his portable classroom.

“YouTube might not be the greatest thing to let a kid use unattended," he said, "but for the teacher to use it there’s a ton of resources on there.

"It would help a lot to show performances; to show historic stuff would be great.”

Miami-Dade schools are finishing a $1.2 billion overhaul of schools across the district. Most now have fast wireless networks -- as of the end this school year. Others will soon – like Oliver Hoover Elementary.

Florida schools are in the middle of a high-tech transformation.

A new generation of online tests are coming out next year. There’s a requirement that students start using digital technology. And that’s forcing schools to add more computers and classroom technology.

At 238 Miami-Dade schools, the district used federal E-rate grants to pay for the upgrades.

E-rate is a little-known program – unless you’re one of the people who reads the small print charges at the end of your phone bill. But for schools, it’s crucial.

It’s run by the Federal Communications Commission and helps schools and libraries buy high-speed Internet. But the program – like most technology – is now out of date.

That’s because E-rate pays for wired broadband first -- and then wireless -- with any money left over.

“They did a remarkably good job of getting Internet to the buildings," said Lindsey Tepe, researcher with the New American Foundation in D.C.

But schools that want to go wireless have been shut out from the $2.3 billion in recent years.

Credit Federal Communications Commission
Federal Communications Commission
Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed expanding the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries purchase high-speed Internet.

"Getting internal connectivity," she said, "that is a roadblock because the program isn’t funded at a high enough level to meet all those priority two requests.”

But that may change.

The FCC could vote Friday to add $2 billion to the program over the next two years. And wireless grants would no longer go to the back of the line.

The FCC estimates the changes would more than triple the number of Florida students with WiFi access over the next five years.

The plan details aren’t all public yet. But Tepe wants the updated E-rate program to bring down the cost of Internet service by requiring providers to reveal what they charge schools.

“We don’t know how much it costs schools for broadband service," Tepe said. "So schools across the street from one another could be paying totally different amounts for their service and have no idea what one another are paying. That’s a problem. “

In rural Florida, the problem is a lack of competing Internet service providers. That means higher prices and slower speeds.

That’s the situation in Hamiliton County between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. There’s just one Internet provider. Hamilton schools superintendent Tom Moffses hoped E-rate will change that.

“The Internet connectivity within Florida is available," he said. "It is now up to all the providers to make sure each district has the capabilities that they need.

"This is a Florida need. This is a national need. But rural is having a tougher time.”

Curtis Lanoue -- the music teacher -- wants to see internet in the trailer where he teaches soon.

"It’s gonna happen," he said. "It can happen now, or it can happen 15 years from now and we can be way behind the curve.”

The cost of updating schools is huge – an estimated $3 billion by 2018 -- that’s on top of the current E-rate funding. But that would connect 99 percent of schools wirelessly.

“I’m not sure about the amount of money, whether it’s reasonable or not," Lanoue said, but to expect 99 percent of classrooms to be wireless? That seems like a no-brainer."

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.


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