A handful of leading tech and telecom companies have signed on to a White House initiative to expand access to high-speed Internet connectivity in schools and bring new devices and applications into the classroom, announcing major commitments in support of President Barack Obama's ConnectEd program.
The education technology pledges exceed $750 million and include commitments from Apple, Microsoft, AT&T and others. Collectively, they aim to "close the technology gap in our schools," Obama said in remarks at a middle school in Adelphi, Md. "In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools."
The announcement of the private-sector commitments follows on last week's State of the Union address, during which Obama outlined a number of domestic priorities, including broadband in schools, that he intends to advance through executive action.
"This is something we can do without waiting for Congress," the president said on Tuesday. "We do need some help, though."
Through a series of public-private partnerships, the ConnectEd initiative, which Obama announced last June, aims to deliver high-speed broadband and wireless technology to 99 percent of K-12 students by 2017.
The commitments announced Tuesday include Apple's donation of $100 million worth of iPads, MacBooks and other products to disadvantaged schools. Microsoft is rolling out a program to offer schools discounted versions of the Windows operating system, as well as donations of more than 12 million copies of its Office software suite.
Software vendor Autodesk says it will make its Design the Future program available to every secondary school in the country - a contribution valued at more than $250 million.
On the telecom front, AT&T and Sprint have each committed to contribute around $100 million to deliver wireless connectivity to middle schools and high schools.
Verizon, though its philanthropic arm, is offering up to $100 million to support education in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. O'Reilly Media, in a partnership with Safari Books Online, is contributing more than $100 million in educational content and tools.
White House 'Aggressive' In Digital Learning Investments
Those contributions come in response to the Obama administration's warnings that high-speed Internet access, and the devices and applications it supports, are a crucial element of the modern classroom. Yet not even 30 percent of public schools currently have broadband connectivity that the administration deems sufficient.
"Unfortunately, right now high-speed broadband is not available for millions of our students. The U.S. is falling behind many of our international competitors," Cecilia Muñoz, director of the president's Domestic Policy Council, told reporters on a conference call ahead of the White House announcement. "They're moving forward with aggressive investments in digital learning."
In addition to the private-sector contributions, which the administration bills as a "down payment" on the ConnectEd initiative, the Federal Communications Commission is channeling $2 billion to build out broadband service in some 15,000 schools over the next two years. The FCC projects that the doubling of its broadband funding for schools and libraries through its E-Rate program will deliver high-speed connectivity to 20 million students.
The commission noted that the funding will come from reprioritizing current E-Rate investments, eliminating waste or shifting money from older technologies to support high-speed broadband upgrades.
Additionally, a rural technology program administered by the Department of Agriculture is pledging $10 million in grants to support distance learning.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.
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