Government leans on tech and telecom firms to help students forced to stay home

Key Points
  • The federal government wants to know how technology companies are helping students who must learn from home as the coronavirus outbreak forces school closures.
  • Some lawmakers are hoping that companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple will either provide educational products to schools in need for free or give them priority purchases, a source told CNBC.
  • Representatives from companies including Amazon, IBM and Cisco met at the White House on Wednesday with officials who asked the firms how they can help manage the crisis.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple (L), Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (C) and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.
Getty Images

The federal government wants technology companies' aid in helping students continue their education, as more are asked to do so from home amid the coronavirus outbreak, putting unprecedented pressure on America's network. 

Representatives from companies including Amazon, Google, IBM and Cisco met at the White House on Wednesday with officials who asked the firms how they can help manage the crisis. The discussion ranged from how the technology companies could use their data to help track the virus to rooting out misinformation spreading online, according to people familiar with the discussions and a meeting readout. 

The meeting included U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios and representatives from departments including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, Department of Education and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Participants in the meeting described the tone as collaborative, with each company offering their own ideas and ways to help.  

Of keen interest to some of the people who either dialed into the call or participated in person was how companies will support schools and companies as the country deals with quarantines, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon are among the states that have already asked some students to learn from home.

Nearly 43% of the American population do not have broadband or high-speed internet access, according to testimony by Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Institute for Technology Law & Policy at Georgetown University, before Congress earlier this year. Roughly 18% of schoolchildren in remote rural areas either had no home internet access or dial-up connections only, according to a 2018 Education Department report.  

"Few school districts have experience providing wide-scale educational services online for all students, and not all families have access to home computers and high-speed internet to take advantage of such online options," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, seeking guidance on how schools using online learning can work for students without computers or access to the internet.

Murray's home state has been one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus epidemic. 

Some lawmakers are hoping that companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, which make educational devices, or work with manufacturers that support their service, will either provide those products to schools in need for free or give them priority purchases, a person familiar with the situation told CNBC. That issue was not a focus in the White House meeting, a person familiar with the situation said. 

Microsoft, Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Google said earlier this month it is rolling out free advanced video-conferencing capabilities to all customers of G Suite and G Suite for Education cloud-computing product. 

On Friday, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and other Democrats sent a letter to communication providers including T-Mobile, AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon and Comcast asking them to outline any potential plans they are considering implementing to address connectivity challenges related to the pandemic, particularly for individuals who are impacted by the digital divide. 

"As an operator of a network so critical to ensuring vital education, health, and employment continuity, we hope that you are thoughtfully considering all the ways you can serve the broader community during this worldwide challenge," wrote McNerney and 11 other Democrats. 

The representatives asked the companies how they are working with schools to help those without broadband services and what steps they are taking to provide low-income, highly affected areas broadband connectivity.

There are limitations, though, to how quickly companies could move to broaden their bandwidth to meet the country's immediate need. The FCC had sought to expedite the expansion, announcing in April new initiatives aimed at making it easier for internet providers to more rapidly expand into rural areas. But, even then, carriers need more wireless spectrum, and an auction to supply that doesn't begin until December.

Still, there are steps companies could do with their existing infrastructure, such as opening their networks for free. 

The FCC on Friday said major internet providers have agreed not to cancel service for consumers who can't pay due to coronavirus for the next 60 days and open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, meantime, has called on the agency to identify how it can use its authority to provide Wi-Fi hotspots on loan for students whose schools have closed. She's also called on companies to remove potentially prohibitive data limits. 

Comcast on Thursday announced plans to expand its affordable "Internet Essentials" program by increasing speeds and offering 60-day complimentary programs. Verizon also announced plans to increase network infrastructure investment by $500 million. 

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.