The Federal Communications Commission narrowly voted June 12 to keep in place the controversial funding for connecting schools, libraries and rural health-care facilities to the Internet, albeit making some minor changes to the program, such as connecting the neediest schools first.

Whether the U.S. government should force telecom companies to pay to connect people to the Internet is largely divided along party lines. It’s either more taxes, or it’s part of “the nation’s obligation to make sure our neediest kids have an on-ramp to the network that leads to tomorrow’s opportunities,” as FCC Chairman Bill Kennard said.

It’s not so much that I am against a universal service program to make sure the “nation’s neediest” gain access to the Internet, but I think “the nation” is short-sighted if it only sees the benefit of wiring the nation’s classrooms.

Wiring the nation’s classrooms could involve drilling into walls lined with asbestos. Simple logic tells me most taxpayers would rather forgo the Internet connection rather than worry about exposing the nation’s school children to asbestos. It also stands to reason that “the neediest schools” in many cases will also be the oldest and most deteriorated schools, i.e., the schools most likely to have asbestos.

Instead, outfit the nation’s classrooms with wireless Internet access.

It’s being done today.

Wireless Inc. has a point-to-multipoint product available operating that enables school children in rural Georgia to access the Internet wirelessly. In areas where fiber-optics would be expensive to deploy (again, this will often coincide with where “the nation’s neediest” live), a wireless alternative is cheaper and probably faster to install.

Third-generation cellular applications will enable access to the Internet. Use a classroom for an experiment. These students are pretty technologically savvy. You’ll get honest (maybe too honest) feedback from them about the benefits and shortcomings of the service.

Carriers having trouble siting antennas also would be able to point to something tangible that wireless service contributes to the community. Wireless carriers will have a much stronger argument before zoning boards if they are doing something that benefits a community’s school system.

And the nation’s neediest will benefit, too.


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