The writer is the Nebraska commissioner of education.
One of the biggest challenges facing education today is equity. Children shouldn’t have less opportunity based on poverty, race, location or any other reason. Nebraska will lead the way in addressing inequities of the past by focusing on opportunities to learn for all students.
Nebraska needs creative strategies for meeting students’ educational needs, especially for traditional and adult learners living in our smallest and most geographically isolated communities. Digital learning offers a practical tool for expanding access to useful coursework and relevant job training, but in many cases, broadband infrastructure gaps in rural Nebraska pose challenges to delivering education online. These connectivity gaps need to be filled so that students of all ages, regardless of where they live, can acquire the knowledge and skills required to succeed in our businesses and communities.
Nebraska is a leader in connecting public and private school students to broadband, thanks to local and state planning and the Legislature’s leadership on practical statewide connectivity initiatives like Network Nebraska. Home broadband access in less populated parts of the state, however, has lagged. Market incentives for expanding expensive telecommunications infrastructure require population density, and most of Nebraska’s land mass has fewer than five persons per square mile. As a result, an estimated 45,000 to 60,000 of Nebraska students’ homes either do not have wired or wireless Internet access or are served by connections well below the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband standards. This connectivity problem not only disadvantages rural students, including adults interested in acquiring new workforce skills, it also harms Nebraska’s businesses, communities and overall economy.
Expanding access to wireless broadband is a pragmatic way to connect rural students to broadband, and the FCC will soon make a decision that could enable digital learning to reach more unconnected families. For decades, the FCC has allocated wireless spectrum for exclusive use by educational entities. That spectrum is now called the Educational Broadband Service, or EBS. Unfortunately, the FCC has not granted new EBS licenses — permission to use the wireless spectrum — since the 1990s. In the coming weeks, FCC Chairman Agit Pai and the other FCC commissioners will vote on whether or not to offer new EBS licenses in Nebraska and other states for the first time in a generation.
Last year, the Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Educational Telecommunications and Nebraska’s chief information officer filed formal comments with the FCC, imploring the agency to make these licenses available to the state so that we can begin to connect more rural students to the broadband-supported digital learning opportunities they need to prepare for success in the workplace and in their communities. The FCC should not miss this important, once-in-a-generation opportunity to help rural Nebraskans achieve their full earnings potential and to ensure that all of our communities — regardless of location — can also reap the benefits of the increasingly technology-driven national and global economy. We urge the FCC to say “yes” to EBS and new wireless broadband licenses for Nebraska.