In 1996, I met a 16-year-old high school sophomore named Jessica Lambert from McDowell County, West Virginia. She had been using a computer in her classroom to learn to speak Japanese through satellite classes offered by the University of Nebraska. She told me that without these classes and the opportunities they gave her, she would have been “left in the dark.”
I was so impressed with Jessica’s story that I invited her to testify before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on digital learning. At that time, we were just beginning to understand the power that technology had to enhance a young person’s educational opportunities. In fact, at that time linking up classrooms through the Internet was an extraordinary activity – not just in the coalfields of southern West Virginia but across the country.
Making sure that all children in America have the opportunity to reach their full potential through the best educational tools possible is the reason I worked so hard to create the E-Rate program – which provides schools and libraries with the ability to purchase the technology and services necessary to connect to the Internet at discounted rates. And I’m proud to say that because of this program, millions of children have been able to expand their educations thanks to an Internet connection, just as Jessica did.
Because of E-Rate, what was once so unimaginable is now a regular part of the learning experience. When we started the program in 1996, only about 14 percent of all classrooms were connected to the Internet. And only five percent of classrooms in the poorest schools in the country were connected. But now, the number of schools connected has grown to 92 percent, including 95 percent of classrooms in the most disadvantaged areas.
We have a whole generation of students who benefited from technology in their classrooms. Some have gone on amazing virtual field trips to faraway locations like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Not too long ago I had the opportunity to join Piedmont Elementary School students in Charleston when they connected online with a NASA scientist who works with the International Space Station. Thanks to the Internet, the students were able to have their questions answered in real time about NASA technology and what it was like to work in outer space.
For those without Internet access at home, having a free Internet connection at the local library is vital. It gives children access to computers and the Internet so they can do their homework after school. It gives adults seeking job opportunities access to online postings. All of this is happening because of the critical investments the E-Rate program has made in schools and libraries.
Just as technology is constantly evolving, so must the E-Rate program. That why I believe it’s time to begin building on the program’s remarkable success and make E-Rate even better. This is what I’m referring to as E-Rate 2.0. It’s an expansion of E-Rate so it can support the next generation of high-speed Internet service that our schools and libraries need. And I’m pleased to report that the FCC, which executes and oversees E-Rate, voted today to begin modernizing the program.
There’s no doubt in my mind that under E-Rate 2.0 the program will continue to give students and adults, in schools and libraries, access to a world of unparalleled information that would otherwise be unaffordable. Technology is the great equalizer in our society, and every child and adult deserves to be connected to the promise that this technology holds. And for our children especially, we must give them access to technology so – just like Jessica Lambert – they are ready to compete in an increasingly interconnected and data-driven world.