March 26, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 13

News

Bremerton School District seeks federal funds to spread Wi-Fi to students’ homes

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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One in seven students in the Bremerton School District students lacks access to the Internet outside of school.

That could change if the school district establishes a network of hot spots all over the region that would allow students to access the Internet through any computer, laptop or phone with wireless.

“We’re not a geographically large district; we may be able to blanket the district with wireless access points,” said Wayne Lindberg, Finance & Operations Director of the Bremerton School District. “We would then allow students to literally go anywhere within the district boundaries and still be attached to wireless.”

Such a project would cost $400,000 to establish and $100,000 a month to maintain. Much of the funding, if approved, would be paid for by a federal tax to telecommunication companies called E-rate, which funds Internet connections for libraries and schools.

E-rate is charged to telecommunication companies, but the cost is frequently passed on to phone customers, who pay a Universal Service Fund fee on their bill. The funding was established in 1996 when, according to the Federal Communications Commission, only 14 percent of the nation’s schools had access to the Internet.

The tax generates about $2.4 billion a year to provide Internet access to public schools and libraries.

If Bremerton is able to secure E-rate funding for the project, connecting to a districtwide Internet service could cost families as little as $2 to $4 a month. The service would be limited to two devices — laptops, desktop computers or phones — and would provide the same Internet access students can get at schools. The service would block sites dealing with sex, violence or weapons. Many ads are also filtered out, Lindberg said.

Bremerton’s proposed program would allow any of the district’s nearly 5,000 students to connect wirelessly with a password.

The program faces a few hurdles. It requires approval from the Bremerton School Board, and the district will then need to convince most of the district’s families to sign up for the program. The district can operate it only if most students are willing to pay $2 to $4 a month for the service.

The Bremerton School Board declined to pass the proposal at a March 20 meeting, deciding instead to spend a year studying it.

Charles Brennick, director of InterConnection,  said Internet access is an essential need.

“Everything’s online; how do you think you’re going to get to healthcare.gov?” Brennick said, referring to the Affordable Care Act site people must access to sign up for health care. “How are you going to find a job if you’re not getting online?”

InterConnection is a nonprofit that helps low-income people, but the federal government has also nudged big businesses to help. In 2011, Comcast purchased NBC Universal from General Electric. As a condition of the sale, the FCC required Comcast to establish its Internet Essentials program, which provides high-speed Internet for $10 a month to families with children on the federal free and reduced lunch program.

Today, Comcast is serving 1,100 households through the program. The FCC required Comcast to operate the program for three years, but Comcast announced in March that it would continue the program indefinitely.

Location and equipment limit both of these efforts: Comcast has to send technicians to each household to connect them to the cable Internet service. People have to go to InterConnection’s office in Wallingford to collect the modem.

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