U.S. Sen. Tom Udall
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do more to ensure all students in New Mexico and across the country have equal access to the Internet for educational and economic opportunity.
Specifically, Udall wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC should extend the successful E-rate program, which pays for Internet access in schools, and provide Wi-Fi on school buses so students can have more time to do their homework.
While the E-Rate program has helped ensure schools are equipped with broadband Internet, a third of New Mexico households — and homes across the country — still lack access, either because families can’t afford it or because it simply isn’t available. But with seven in 10 teachers nationwide assigning homework that requires internet access, students without access at home are now at an unfair disadvantage to their peers.
“Broadband should help create educational opportunities for these children, not a new barrier to their success at school,” Udall wrote to Wheeler.
The idea of Wi-Fi on school buses was suggested by student athlete Jonah Madrid at a May roundtable discussionUdall hosted at Hatch Valley High School about the “digital divide” or “homework gap” affecting students in rural and low-income communities. Several students told Udall and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who attended the roundtable with Udall, about the hurdles they have to go through to find after-hours Wi-Fi signals. Jonah explained that his varsity football team travels over an hour by school bus to away games. When he gets back, he sometimes does his homework in the school parking lot, just so he can access the Wi-Fi signal. Jonah said he could save time and get home earlier if he could do his homework on the bus.
Udall questioned Rosenworcel about the idea during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month. In Wednesday’s letter, he formally requested that the FCC use its existing authority to expand the E-Rate program to school buses.
“This strikes me as a bright idea to help extend internet access to students while they travel to and from school. A handful of school districts are already experimenting with this ‘Wi-Fi on wheels,'” Udall wrote to Wheeler. “Since schools cannot currently use E-Rate to support such service, however, it is unlikely to reach rural schools in my home state of New Mexico.”
Most rural schools in New Mexico will need financial assistance from the federal government to afford school bus Wi-Fi, Udall continued. “If the Commission does not believe that such an initiative is possible under its current authority, I will seek legislation to provide the flexibility to do so. Students in New Mexico and across the country deserve our best efforts to remove barriers to their success in school.”
As a member of the Senate Commerce and Appropriations committees, Udall has long advocated for extending broadband internet throughout New Mexico, particularly in highly rural and Tribal communities. The Internet is an essential tool for education, economic development, and health care, and he has supported resources to ensure rural communities aren’t left behind.
In addition to the roundtable on the homework gap in Hatch, Udall hosted Wheeler at Acoma Pueblo in 2014. There, students are in a very similar position as those in Hatch. The Acoma librarian told Udall and Wheeler that she leaves the Wi-Fi signal on after hours so students can access it to do homework.
A copy of Udall’s full letter is here.