EDUCAUSE, Higher Ed Groups Push for Broadband Access and Infrastructure

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EDUCAUSE was joined by twenty-nine higher education associations in a letter to Congress calling for passage of the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, consideration of broadband access for economically distressed students in other efforts to help unserved and underserved communities, and inclusion of the research and education (R&E) network community's infrastructure requests in any broadband infrastructure package.

Earlier this month, twenty-nine higher education associations—including the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Association of Governing Boards—joined EDUCAUSE in submitting a letter to Congress highlighting key concerns regarding student broadband access and research and education (R&E) network infrastructure. As the letter notes, the closing of physical campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic forced many students to return to homes and communities lacking effective access to broadband, at a time when such access is essential to maintaining academic progress and using related services. EDUCAUSE and its partners therefore asked Congress to ensure that efforts to increase unserved and underserved community access to broadband—for example, through using the E-Rate and Lifeline programs as vehicles to fund emergency measures—take into account the need to connect economically distressed college students in those communities with relevant opportunities.

The associations also discussed the potential for Congress to directly address the broadband access problem as it pertains to college/university students by passing the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act. This bill has already been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and it would create a $1 billion fund under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for grants to colleges and universities so that they can provide students in need with broadband service and computers. The legislation was introduced too late to be included in the latest emergency spending bill proposed by the House (the HEROES Act), but the Senate's interest in developing its own proposal and negotiating a final package with the House provides an opportunity to add the Supporting Connectivity act to the next major spending package. EDUCAUSE and its fellow associations are urging Congress to take advantage of this opportunity, knowing that physical distancing requirements will continue to persist through the fall term even as some campuses reopen.

While Congress definitely needs to prioritize near-term options for providing and maintaining student access to broadband, expanding and upgrading the nation's broadband infrastructure remains a foundational element of closing the digital divide, including for college/university students who can't use campus networks to get online. Earlier this year, the country's two leading R&E networking organizations, Internet2 and The Quilt, sent a letter (see the attachments to the EDUCAUSE broadband letter) to the leadership of Congress discussing ideas for investing in R&E network infrastructure. They noted how supporting R&E networks in the development of public-private partnerships with commercial providers could greatly increase the reach of backbone (Internet2) and middle-mile (The Quilt) connectivity into unserved and underserved communities, an increased reach that would expand broadband access in those areas by significantly lowering the cost of last-mile access. They highlighted the key role that wireless spectrum dedicated to educational purposes can play in this process if Congress directs the FCC to make this a priority. They also discussed the extent to which the academic research enterprise, which is key to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as well as generating innovations to help spur the economic recovery, depends on R&E networks, further justifying immediate and long-term investments in those networks. Finally, Internet2 and The Quilt stressed the importance of near-term federal funding for upgrading R&E network infrastructure to meet the increased needs generated by the pandemic while laying the groundwork for the service expansions envisioned by the other proposals. The more recent EDUCAUSE-led letter endorses these recommendations and calls for Congress to ensure that the recommendations are addressed in any broadband infrastructure package that it might pass.

Congress seems unlikely to seriously consider another emergency spending bill as well as a federal infrastructure package until after its July 4 recess, at the earliest. The window for acting on those measures will be tight if the Senate does decide to join the House in seeking to move them, given that the party conventions in August will essentially conclude legislative action (except in the case of truly emergency circumstances) until after the November election. However, the widespread support of the higher education community for addressing broadband access and infrastructure issues, as indicated by the large number of associations that joined the EDUCAUSE letter, provides momentum for getting those issues into the mix for the next round of spending bills. EDUCAUSE will continue to work with its association and R&E network partners to push for including our communities' needs in those processes.

For more information about policy issues impacting higher education IT, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Policy Spotlight blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Policy web page.

Jarret Cummings is Senior Advisor for Policy and Government Relations at EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Jarret Cummings. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.