Wi-Fi on the way to school: FCC vote aims to help students with poor internet access

More school buses across the country could be fitted with Wi-Fi after a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission.

In a 3-2 vote along party lines, commissioners adopted a declaratory ruling allowing districts to use money from the E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries buy affordable broadband, toward Wi-Fi and supported devices on buses. 

Democrats on the commission and in Congress lauded the proposal as a way of supporting students, particularly those in rural areas, with lengthy commutes to and from school. Greater access to Wi-Fi, they said, would help close disparities in homework completion and academic success.

Republicans, however, cautioned against what they saw as potentially wasteful government spending that they claimed could increase students’ access to unsupervised internet use. 

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the proposal was an effort to make sure the E-Rate program, which is paid for by a system of subsidies and fees from telecommunications companies, keeps up with the times, as children have become increasingly reliant on technology to complete their schoolwork. 

“Call it Wi-Fi on wheels,” she said. 

Rosenworcel said during Thursday’s hearing that she was particularly struck by a story she heard while on a trip to a Vermont school district last week: A school librarian spoke about a young girl who had no broadband access at home. 

“At the end of every school day, she rushed to the library just before the bus left, and furiously printed out her assignments,” Rosenworcel said. “Let’s be clear, this a kid with extraordinary grit. But it shouldn’t be this hard.” 

Matt Fedders, the superintendent of the Vermont school district that Rosenworcel visited, told USA TODAY some of his rural students face daily commutes bordering on an hour. He’s hoping the language change approved at Thursday’s hearing will allow him to cover some of the ongoing costs associated with a bus Wi-Fi program his district already has underway. 

“We have a lot of students who do not have any reliable internet in their homes,” he said. 

The measure was supported by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and several national rural education associations. 

Concerns about kids’ access to social media using school bus Wi-Fi

Congressional Republicans opposed the proposal in recent weeks. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state in a letter last month raised concerns about “subsidizing unsupervised internet access to social media sites like TikTok.”

“Addictive and distracting social media apps are inviting every evil force on the planet into kids’ classrooms, homes, and minds by giving those who want to abuse or harm children direct access to communicate with them online,” Cruz said in a statement. 

Fedders, the Vermont superintendent, said the devices on buses in his district have all the same firewalls and security measures as the network in the school building. 

“We are able to limit the access to content that we do not want them using,” he said. 

Keith Krueger, CEO of the education technology group the Consortium for School Networking, said a recent survey from his organization showed only 13% of districts say they provide Wi-Fi on school buses.

“From our perspective and the vast majority of educators, they see great value in recapturing time that students are commuting to school,” he told USA TODAY.