As reported by Funds For Learning®, school spending for cellular phone service is up 40% per student since 2008, growing almost 6 times faster than telephone and Internet access. While it’s true there is an increasing demand to connect students to the Internet, the growth in cellphone usage seems unusually high.

It appears that schools are spending a lot of money on cellular service to get kids connected.  A large west coast school district was recently awarded over $6.8 million to connect 5,000 laptops to the Internet using cellular data plans. That comes out to over $125 per month spent to connect laptop computers to the Internet.  This is like making everyone in your home lease their own voice, video and Internet service!

Now, before we go any further, let me be clear about something. Cellular phone service is very important in schools -- and it should qualify for E-rate discounts -- but it should not be the primary means of connecting our nation’s students to the Internet. Cellular data plans are an ineffective (and very expensive) answer to our schools’ true Internet needs.

What is behind this surge? What is leading schools to ask for so much cellular phone support? I can’t speak to all circumstances, but I can say that a big driver for these decisions is the lack of E-rate funding support for network infrastructure. The E-rate program, originally designed to include funding for networking equipment - like Wi-Fi gear - is now based on a “Priority” funding system that actually encourages schools to go out and order expensive services like cell phone data plans instead of making more cost-effective purchases.

Worse yet, not only is the demand for expensive cellular service eating into the available E-rate funding, it is gobbling up our country’s “invisible infrastructure:” radio wave spectrum. Here is what FCC Chairman Genachowski said recently about the problem of too many cellphones:

Smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices all rely on spectrum—the airwaves that transmit bits of information to and from these mobile marvels. Think of it as the country's invisible infrastructure. Spectrum is finite, and the demand for airwaves being created by data-hungry, Internet-connected devices is on pace to exceed supply. How significant is the spike in demand? Today's smartphones generate 50 times more mobile traffic than a traditional cellphone. For tablets, it's 120 times more traffic. As a result, American wireless networks are running at the highest utilization rate of any in the world.

– FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2013

I applaud Chairman Genachowski’s vision to guard the availability of cellular radio spectrum. The proposals he is bringing forward are good ones, but we have one that can start to impact the availability of radio spectrum today: restore the E-rate program to its original intent and allow schools to purchase necessary network infrastructure (such as Wi-Fi).

Current program rules are pushing less cost-effective methods of Internet connectivity into the spotlight.  Cellular service deserves a role in our schools, and the FCC should continue to fund it.  But it should play a supporting role, not a starring role.