March 12, 2019

Whitehouse, Udall, Gardner, and Cortez Masto Introduce Bill to Put Wi-Fi on School Buses and Help Close the Digital Divide

Bipartisan bill aims to close "homework gap" that disadvantages low-income and rural students without internet access at home. Legislation would make Wi-Fi on school buses eligible for E-Rate reimbursement.

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) introduced a bill to make it easier to put wireless internet on school buses in order to help students without broadband access at home get online to study, learn, and complete homework. The legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Program to reimburse school districts that place Wi-Fi technology on school buses carrying students to school or school-related extracurricular activities. Companion legislation will be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

“While schoolwork often requires internet access outside of school, many students don’t have a way to get online at home,” said Whitehouse. “Making wi-fi available on school buses is a simple way to set kids up for success by providing a daily window to help them complete their homework.”

“When we increase access to high-speed internet, we increase access to opportunities. Every kid in New Mexico and across the country should have every opportunity to succeed – no matter where they live or how much their family makes. But nearly one-third of New Mexico kids are at risk of falling behind in school simply because they can’t get on the internet at home,” said Udall. “It’s time to end the homework gap and set our kids up for success. By extending internet access to students while they commute to and from school, this bill would turn travel time into study time, enabling kids to complete their homework before they get home. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I’ll continue to push for innovative, 21st century solutions to help bridge the digital divide that hurts too many rural, Tribal, and low-income communities across New Mexico through strong federal investment in broadband and internet infrastructure.”

“Many students in rural school districts across Colorado and the country spend hours on the bus each day commuting to and from school and traveling to sporting events,” said Gardner. “These students should have the opportunity to use their time more effectively and installing Wi-Fi on school buses will allow them to finish homework assignments and bring the classroom to the road. Senator Udall and I are introducing this bipartisan legislation that will allow school districts to invest in their students and use federal dollars to outfit their school buses with WiFi. This will help rural students and especially low-income students who may not otherwise have access to mobile Internet. I’m excited about this new opportunity and look forward to seeing students in Colorado benefit from this initiative.”

“Lack of access to reliable broadband hurts children from rural and low-income communities who may not have quality internet accessible where they live. This legislation will help bridge that divide and expand learning opportunities so our students in Nevada have greater opportunity to excel in their schoolwork. Investing in our children’s education now will ensure our kids can compete for and get the 21st century jobs of the future,” said Cortez Masto.

“I whole-heartedly support Senator Udall’s efforts to close the digital divide, and especially the homework gap, for students who lack internet access at home,” added Dr. Veronica C. Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. “His vision turns idle seat time on the school bus into an opportunity for extended learning.  As Superintendent of a school district that benefits from rolling school buses, it is exciting to know that children throughout the country will be able to experience continued learning during their often long commutes home. I applaud Sen. Udall for bringing this legislation forward.”

The bill was inspired by an idea put forth by Jonah Madrid, a student-athlete from Hatch, New Mexico. In 2016, during a roundtable on the homework gap at Hatch Valley High School, Madrid told Udall and then-FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel about the great lengths he would go to find Wi-Fi signal after school was over. Madrid said that after traveling hours on the bus to football games, he would sit in the dark school parking lot late at night to do his homework because that was the only place he could access wireless internet. Madrid proposed putting wireless technology on his school bus in order to let him and his teammates make use of their long bus rides.

Since then, the bipartisan legislation has received widespread support from a range of stakeholders, including the School Superintendents Association, a professional organization representing thousands of educational leaders throughout America and the world, the Competitive Carriers Association, an advocacy organization for rural, regional and nationwide wireless telecommunications, and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) Wireless, a Navajo-owned communications company. Tribal communities are hit particularly hard by the digital divide, with approximately 76 percent of Tribal members living in rural New Mexico unable to access the internet at home.

“When we think about efficiencies in federal policies, and common sense solutions that allow education system leaders to make small changes with big impacts: that is the type of policy we can support. AASA applauds Mr. Gardner and Mr. Udall for their continued leadership on the issue of expanding access to internet for our students, and AASA is pleased to support their bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to include Wi-Fi access on school buses an eligible use of the E-Rate program. AASA has long supported the E-Rate program, responsible for transforming internet access in classrooms across the nation over the last two decades, and this legislation is another step forward in ensuring that today’s 24-hour students have 24-hour access,“ said Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director of the School Superintendents Association.

“Access to educational resources is just one of the many benefits that robust mobile broadband can bring to communities across the country.  Allowing students the opportunity to do homework and access the Internet on school buses is a perfect example, and CCA supports this effort to ensure no student – whether urban or rural – is left behind in the digital world,” said Steven K. Berry, President and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association.

“I am glad that Senators Udall, Gardner, Cortez Masto, and Whitehouse continue to push for the expanded use of E-Rate funds to include wireless internet service on school buses,” said Clyde Casciato, NTUA Wireless General Manager. “Those living on the Navajo nation know firsthand that internet access is too often not available at home or in their community, making it nearly impossible for students to complete homework assignments and research projects. In trials where NTUAW has partnered with Kayenta Unified School District to provide this service on three different school bus routes, the technology worked successfully and has been used regularly by students to complete assignments.  With this service, students are able to take advantage of what would otherwise be lost hours on the school bus each day to continue their education.  E-Rate funds are necessary to support this initiative, or it will never become a reality for most schools as they cannot afford to take on the expense of this additional service. Without a doubt, expanding E-Rate funds to include internet access on school buses will impact the quality of education received by so many students on the Navajo Nation. On behalf of NTUAW, I want to thank you for advocating to fund this service, and look forward to the opportunity to partner with schools to get it deployed on school buses throughout the Navajo Nation.”

The full text of the legislation is available HERE. A summary of the bill is available HERE.


Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921