School buses are once again in the national spotlight as SpaceX looks to equip its Starlink satellite internet constellation on the yellow vehicles to help students across the U.S. access internet.
SpaceX considers Starlink the best service to close the homework gap, as the technology promises to deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband at reasonable costs to the most remote parts of the country. SpaceX has deployed over 3,000 satellites so far and has also developed a high-performance dish that enables the company to provide mobile services.
In collaboration with school districts, SpaceX is piloting projects in rural locations to support students traveling on long school bus routes. The company’s goal is to turn “ride time to connected time.” The piloted bus routes are reportedly more than 60 minutes each way and are predominately inaccessible to other mobile broadband services.
David Goldman, SpaceX’s senior director of satellite policy, sent a letter on Tuesday to Marlene Dortch, the secretary of the Federal Communications Commission. The letter says that the company agrees with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that providing Wi-Fi on school buses is critical to bridging the homework gap. The letter continues that such service should be eligible for E-Rate support, which historically school buses have not been an allowed provision.
“SpaceX supports the commission’s efforts to enable funding for the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism (more commonly known as the “E-Rate program”) and connect millions of students in the U.S. whose broadband internet needs are still unmet,” the letter explains. “SpaceX is committed to ensuring access to high-speed, low-latency broadband service to benefit American students as quickly as possible, not only at home but on their way to and from school. In fact, SpaceX has prioritized connecting otherwise unserved schools and libraries in the most remote parts of the country, including on Tribal lands.”
The letter notes that the commission should quickly act to expand the E-Rate program by ensuring access to high-speed broadband services on school buses is an eligible provision.
In compliance with the American Rescue Plan, the FCC adopted the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which supported services beyond E-Rate, such as funding for broadband services on school buses that transport students to and from school.
Related: Emergency Connectivity Fund Requests Exceed Remaining Balance of Program
Related: The New Dawn of Connectivity
Related: FCC Approves School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Under COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Fund
“As this program winds down, these critical services for students are now at risk,” the SpaceX letter continues. “Providing new funding for these mobile services is of utmost importance, since in many cases, these students lack any high-throughput, low-latency option, not only during their commute to school, but also at home.”
Goldman adds in the letter that a Pew Research Center Study conducted last year indicates that 17 million students in the U.S. do not have access to internet at home. Low-income students are affected disproportionately, and one-third (35 percent) of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home.
“And many students who need the most support live miles from school, with lengthy commutes but no connectivity,” writes Goldman. “Subsidized funding such as the E-Rate program should address digital equity and enable increased educational opportunities for students across the U.S. by ensuring access to high-speed internet at home and on the way to school.”
SpaceX says that if E-Rate is updated to include school buses, funding for these services, like SpaceX’s mobile antennas that can immediately provide Wi-Fi on school buses, will benefit students in the U.S. while at home and on school bus routes.