Cantwell, Colleagues Celebrate Bill Implementation that Will Help Address Digital Divide in Washington

The American Rescue Plan included legislation introduced by Cantwell to address the digital divide in education with emergency E-Rate funding. As many as 21% of Washington K-12 students still do not have the internet connectivity or technology required for remote learning.

WASHINGTON D.C. –  Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Congresswoman Grace Meng (D, NY-06), hailed the FCC’s implementation of their legislation, the Emergency Educational Connections Act, and the more than $7 billion in funding for the E-Rate (Education-Rate) program that was included in the American Rescue Plan. This legislation will fund elementary and secondary schools and libraries, including Tribal schools and libraries, to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and internet-enabled devices, including internet service through such equipment, to students, staff, and patrons.

“The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear: functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home. When Washington state started the 2020 school year online, an estimated 280,000 school-aged children did not have broadband in their homes. That’s 280,000 Washington state kids – and 12 million students around the country – who woke up each weekday wondering how they would go to school. I’m proud to have fought alongside my colleagues in the Senate for this funding and am glad to finally see its implementation by the FCC. Today, we are one step closer to making sure students have broadband connections in their home,” Senator Cantwell said.

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, studies indicate that as many as 12 million children around the United States still lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning or complete their homework after class. These students are disproportionately from communities of color, low-income households, Tribal lands, and rural areas —a point Cantwell highlighted at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last May.

The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that between 12% and 21% of Washington K-12 students still do not have the technology or internet connectivity required for remote learning. This fall, state officials estimated that only about 83% of students had consistent access to a reliable internet connection.

At a recent virtual roundtable discussion, a principal from the Columbia School District near Spokane described trying to implement remote learning in her school only to find that close to seventy percent of students and their families lacked consistent access to broadband internet.

For those who did have access, they still often lacked a strong enough signal for more than one of their children to attend virtual class at once, putting parents in the impossible dilemma of deciding which of their kid’s schooling was more important for that day or that class period. In neighborhoods with multiple children trying to attend their digital classrooms, the signal failed to hold up, leaving all of them unable to learn.

“The need for appropriate internet and cellular coverage in Steven's County,” the principal said, “is now glaring like a neon light.”

Another testimonial from a parent in a rural area that lacks broadband access read: “I can’t ignore the fact that my student did not get the same chance of education that another student did who had these services readily available to them.”

Since E-Rate was created more than two decades ago, more than $54 billion has been invested nationwide to provide internet access for schools and libraries. Senator Cantwell has been a leading Senate champion of efforts to expand broadband access, including for remote learning. In March 2020, in September 2020, and again in February 2021, Cantwell urged the FCC to use its existing authority and programs to facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up with remote schoolwork.