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Broadband Deficit Hurts Education Opportunity

December 30, 2013

Last evening my daughter and son-in-law were visiting and we played an old-school game called Facts in Five that my daughter recalled playing when she was in JHS in the eighties. The game requires players to fill in a 5X5 grid that has letters running down the vertical column on the outside and categories running across the horizontal column on the top. The categories are things like “American authors”, or “Colleges”, or “Adjectives with 5 syllables”. Players try to fill in the grid in a 3 minute interval. When players read out their responses, they receive credit for each unique response. As we tallied scores last night, there were dozens of instances where we needed to determine the nationality of a particular author or whether a person was alive or dead or some factual element regarding an answer. In the “old days”, many of these kinds of debates required thumbing through reference books  or dictionaries…. but last night the answers came quickly through the use of my son-in-law’s cell phone which connected to our dsl.

I share this anecdote because it struck me as exemplary of the kind of ready information that is UN-available to many students and citizens as I read an article in today’s NYTimes titled “US Struggles to Keep Pace in Delivering Broadband Service”. The article featured a picture of Riga, Latvia, with a caption that read: “The capital city of Latvia, Riga, has an average Internet speed that is at least two-and-a-half times that of San Antonio“… oh… and the article report the cost is one fourth of San Antonio’s. Why? Because other countries subsidize the service, recognizing the importance of broadband to economic competitiveness. In our country, which protects the internet providers, we actually pass laws that make it difficult for consumers to acquire broadband in their homes. These two paragraphs summarize the sad state of affairs in our country.

Leticia Ozuna, a former San Antonio councilwoman who worked on the municipal broadband effort, said that in her former district in South San Antonio, some 70 percent of households had no Internet service. Often, she added, students gather at night in the parking lot of the Mission Branch Public Library to do homework using the library’s free Wi-Fi connection, long after the library itself has closed.

San Antonio’s power company has a largely unused fiber-optic network that local government offices have been using for high-speed Internet service for years, but a Texas law prevents the city from using the network to give low-cost service to consumers.

The article cites several examples of cities that have invested in broadband but kept the price prohibitively high for consumers, contrasting them to Korea where broadband is widely available. As the somewhat trivial “Fact-in-Five” incident illustrates, having even dsl provides a marked advantage in information gathering over books… and if I wanted to share information like MOOCs or Khan Academy and didn’t have broadband I would be at a complete loss.

And here’s what’s maddening: the conservative think tanks who excoriate the US education system using test data don’t see why we should use “horse race” data on band width to rank economic opportunities afforded through broadband:

“Some people like to look at it as a horse race,” said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, “but I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it.” He added, “We’re not at the starting gate, we’re not at the finish line. We’re somewhere in the middle of the race.”

It’s OK for us to be “in the middle of the race” when it comes to providing learning tools but completely unacceptable for us to be in the middle of race when it comes to education? What’s wrong with this picture?

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