WASHINGTON – Pushed by the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission and private groups are working together to bring speedier Internet access to public schools across the country.

In June 2013, President Barack Obama announced his ConnectED initiative, which called on the FCC to connect 99 percent of all K-through-12 students in public schools to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years. The initiative sought the help of government, businesses and school districts in providing more education technology resources to schools and by training teachers to use high quality tech in classrooms.

Since then, improving connectivity has been high on the minds of FCC commissioners.

The FCC — an agency tasked with reviewing communications law and regulating radio, television, wire, satellite and cable communications in the country — was required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act to administer the Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-rate.

FY 2010 Federal Support for Communications Connectivity (Source: Broadband.gov)

FY 2010 Federal Support for Communications Connectivity (Source: Broadband.gov)

E-rate has brought broadband to most of the nation’s schools and public libraries since its establishment 18 years ago. According to the FCC, in the first ten years of the program, Internet access in American classrooms jumped from 27 percent to 94 percent, and the majority of schools switched from using dial-up to broadband.

But a quality connection has still not reached many students, said Lindsey Tepe, who works for the education policy program at the nonpartisan Washington think tank New America Foundation.

“Often it would only connect to maybe the front desk, the administrative office,” Tepe said. “It wasn’t extending to the classrooms.”

According to nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, which aims to upgrade Internet connectivity in all American public schools, 72 percent of schools do not have sufficient technology infrastructure to sustain digital learning. That amounts to about 40 million students, EducationSuperHighway says in a factsheet.

On average, schools in rural areas have access to less technology in classrooms than the rest of the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Joshua Bleiberg, coordinator of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, said infrastructure problems in some urban districts also make high-speed Internet access difficult.

EducationSuperHighway believes a school needs 100 Megabits per second of Internet access for every 1,000 students, and will need 1 Gigabit per second per 1,000 students in 2017. The typical school’s Internet reaches about 20 Mbps.

Advocates and the Obama administration want the FCC to bridge that gap. In July 2013, the FCC announced plans to modernize its E-rate program, accepting public comments throughout the rest of the year.

In February, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama last fall, announced the agency will dedicate an additional $2 billion to E-rate over the next two years. The agency believes the money will allow about 15,000 schools to have high-speed Internet, connecting about 20 million students, according to the FCC website.

“This investment is a down-payment on the goal of 99 percent of America’s students having high-speed Internet connections within five years,” Wheeler said in a statement. “We will take a business-like approach to the management of the program, identifying opportunities to improve the ways funds are deployed and streamlining the process for schools and libraries.”

Along the way, the FCC has been helped and prodded by EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based organization funded by donations from individuals and foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

EducationSuperHighway collects information on school connectivity by allowing districts to test their own Internet speeds, offers districts technical support in upgrading their Internet infrastructure, compiles information on prices in order to reduce costs for schools and works closely with the FCC to discuss policy changes.

Most recently, EducationSuperHighway has collected information from thousands of districts on over $400 million worth of E-rate spending, and plans to publish the data next week, said CEO Evan Marwell.

“The FCC doesn’t really have a lot of good data about how E-rate funding is being spent, and what the challenges are that they need to address in their policy changes to make the E-rate program much more effective,” Marwell said.

EducationSuperHighway has also worked with the White House to secure commitments for donations from companies to support connectivity upgrades.

In January, the nonprofit organized a letter addressed to Wheeler that called for the FCC to ensure available funding for E-rate modernization. The letter was signed by founders and top executives of 50 corporations, including Facebook, Hewlett-Packard Company, eBay, YouTube and Microsoft.

“If our schools do not embrace technology and the Internet, our children will be unable to compete in the global economy,” the letter said. “America’s businesses need a workforce that is prepared for the knowledge economy … In an era of scarce resources and increasing complexity in the classroom, digital learning represents our country’s best hope to transform its K-12 education system to meet these goals.”

Marwell said he believes the business community is supportive of the public-private partnership in education technology that Obama called for in ConnectED.

“Corporations are really concerned about upgrading our schools and they view the integration of technology as one of the ways that we really can make a difference in helping our schools deliver what they need to deliver,” Marwell said.

On Obama’s side, the focus is on teachers. His recently proposed budget announced the ConnectEDucators program, a part of the ConnectED effort that aims to create a network for teachers that allows them to share best practices of technology use in the classroom.

ConnectEDucators aims to train teachers to utilize new technology and invest in private sector technology innovation that will aid students and teachers in the classroom.

According to a fact sheet on ConnectED released by the White House in 2013, funding for teacher development will come from existing funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The proposed fiscal 2015 budget calls for $200 million for the newly announced ConnectEDucators program.

While the FCC money that pays for E-rate comes from outside the traditional government budget, funding for ConnectEDucators would need approval from Congress.

Aspiring teachers place a high value on technology in the classroom.

A study commissioned by Blackboard found that new teachers overall are more used to online tools than teachers already in the system. Thirty percent of teachers use Twitter to communicate with followers and 35 percent are able to use Google Docs, a set of online collaborative tools used for educational and professional purposes.

Current teachers, however, also stressed their need for further resources in the classroom. In a study commissioned by PBS, 68 percent of teachers said they needed more technology in their classrooms. Additionally, 48 percent used technology for online lesson plans and 45 percent use technology for online educational games and activities.

Bleiberg, of the Brookings Institution, said simply “throwing dollars at this problem” to provide technology to teachers is not enough.

“When you survey teachers and you say, ‘Do you want the newest, best technology in your classroom?’, high rates say yes, of course,” Bleiberg said. “In a lot of cases where they’re given that technology, they don’t know how to incorporate it into their practice. In a lot of ways it can fundamentally change the approach that they would have [to teaching] so they don’t use it.”

Principals are also more aware of the need for tech-adept teachers. The Blackboard study showed that principals expected more teachers to be familiar with tech than many actually were. This is the gap that programs such as ConnectEDucators are trying to fill.

ConnectED also wants to increase the focus on private sector innovation in education technology. This means devices for children such as tablets that not only aid in curriculum learning but also personalized learning. New technology could increase the rigor and effectiveness of classes, limiting the constraints that come with a student’s zip code.

This integration of more technology in the classroom could bring rural schools up to speed with schools that are already more connected.