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Politics

Qualcomm says it can help close the digital divide — and wants Congress to pay for it

COVID-19 school closures created a crisis for an estimated 12 million children with no internet access at home. Qualcomm's response has the firm advocating for a public good in a way that also protects its interests.

Lisa and Max Brown

In recent weeks, Qualcomm's policy team has been pushing Congress to set aside billions more in stimulus funding to equip low-income students with devices and internet connectivity.

Photo: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Ever since Congress passed its $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package in late March, education advocates have urged lawmakers to allocate more money to connecting students who have no internet access at home. Now, one wireless industry behemoth is joining them in that fight.

In recent weeks, Qualcomm's policy team has been pushing Congress to set aside billions more in stimulus funding to equip low-income students with devices and internet connectivity. Dean Brenner, the company's senior vice president of spectrum strategy and technology policy, told Protocol that closing this digital divide for students is Qualcomm's "No. 1 concern."

It's the latest example of a tech giant attempting to fix problems created or worsened by coronavirus in a way that aligns with its underlying business interests. School closures in every state have created a crisis in education for the estimated 12 million children who have no internet access at home. That's led to a pressing need to get more wireless devices into students' hands — devices that happen to contain Qualcomm's chip technology.

The CARES Act set aside about $13 billion for K-12 schools, but that money has to cover a range of urgent needs for schools and students, and connectivity is just one.

Recently, Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill that would put another $2 billion toward connecting students to the internet. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and several Democratic colleagues announced their intention to introduce a companion bill in the senate. Meanwhile, children's advocacy groups including Common Sense Media are working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on a bipartisan solution, encouraging them to include funding for remote learning in any forthcoming stimulus bills.

Qualcomm supports the Meng bill, but Brenner said the company is flexible about how exactly the funding should be delivered to schools and students, as long as it gets there. "We do not care what the vehicle is to do this," Brenner said. "What we are adamant about is every kid has got to get a device and connectivity, and it has to happen absolutely right now."

Experts say Qualcomm isn't suddenly seizing on the pandemic. "Their roots in this go way back," said Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that pushes for connectivity for students. "They've been consistent advocates for and financial supporters of efforts to improve digital learning in our schools."

In 2007, the company ran a pilot program in rural North Carolina to study the impact of using cell phones to teach kids algebra. Two years later, it pushed the Federal Communications Commission to fund another test that gave students off-campus internet access. In 2011, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs was part of the leadership team for an Obama administration initiative focused on digital learning. And in 2015, the company stood up a new business unit called Qualcomm Education, which worked with Samsung and AT&T to give low-income students devices with data plans that they could use at home. None of those efforts, though, lasted beyond short-lived pilot projects.

"For 13 years everyone's always told us: You have a good idea here," Brenner said. "Now fast forward to COVID-19, it's not just a good idea. It's absolutely urgent. It's absolutely essential."

That urgency hasn't prevented the usual infighting on Capitol Hill about how to solve the problem. An early version of the CARES Act circulated by the House, which Qualcomm supported, included standalone funding for student connectivity. But that line item, for reasons that remain unclear, was stripped out before the law passed in the Senate. "This was not a normal process of doing a bill, where you have hearings and markups," said Alice Tornquist, Qualcomm's vice president of government affairs. "It's more rapid fire."

Since then, Republicans and Democrats have disagreed over whether future funding ought to be overseen by E-Rate, an existing FCC program that funds internet access for schools, or by some new entity.

Sen. Markey, who created E-Rate as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, has been urging his colleagues to expand the program in response to the coronavirus crisis. "We cannot allow the homework gap to become a larger learning gap. That's why we must use E-Rate immediately to pay to connect students where they are now at home," Markey said Wednesday during a livestream organized by advocacy groups.

That's been a sticking point for Republicans, Marwell said. "Folks on the Republican side are concerned if the money goes into E-Rate, even though it's temporary, it could become a permanent feature of E-Rate," he said.

Then there's the question of how much funding would be enough to give every needy child a device and internet access. According to Marwell, the figure for the 2020-2021 school year is $2 billion for internet access, but could exceed $5 billion to cover devices and all of the services that go along with those devices, too.

As lawmakers take on the issue, Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, said the involvement of companies that make devices and wire the country is critical. "You need the corporate sector to come through on this," Steyer said. "It's the right thing to do, and it's a win-win for everybody."

Steyer pointed to an initiative his organization launched with Google, Apple, Salesforce and Zoom. Called Wide Open School, it's a central hub for educational content for kids learning at home. "All of the CEOs were involved and supported it, and they deserve credit for that," Steyer said. "It doesn't happen without their leadership."

Apple, Amazon, Google, Verizon, T-Mobile and others are also donating hardware to help California distribute 70,000 hot spots, laptops, netbooks and tablets to students who need them.

But Qualcomm has a particularly important role to play, beyond its influence in the funding discussion, Marwell said. Giving students access to the internet at home will require a combination of wired broadband and wireless hot spots. "Qualcomm's technology is an absolutely critical part of those mobile hot spots and represent a significant portion of the cost of creating them," Marwell said. "Anything Qualcomm can do to lower the cost of hot spots would be an important contribution they could make."


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Brenner acknowledges the work Qualcomm is doing to encourage more funding for remote learning isn't charity. "We're very up-front about saying that," Brenner said. Rather, it's a strategic bet that the company, the tech industry and the economy will be stronger if millions of kids aren't forced to sacrifice their education for the duration of this crisis.

"If we have 12 million kids in the U.S. without connectivity, and they're not going to learn for months," Brenner said, "then yeah, it would be part of our business to make sure that's a problem that gets corrected."

Correction: Dean Brenner's position at Qualcomm is senior vice president of spectrum strategy and technology policy. This story was updated on April 30, 2020.

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