WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sixteen years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Schools and Libraries Universal Support Mechanism, or E-Rate, to bring advanced services to schools and libraries across America.
In many ways, the program has been a success. But, as with many federal programs, it has had its share of difficulties.
For some schools around the country, Internet connectivity has not yet reached the place where the greatest benefits would be realized: in classrooms. While the FCC has made progress over the past decade in helping to connect schools, its E-Rate program has fallen short on connecting classrooms with high-speed broadband.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently remarked that the current E-Rate program has “structural problems” that must be first addressed in order to better serve schools and students. Those issues identified were the arduous paperwork and filing process, delays, a complex application process, outdated priority levels, and poor incentive structures.
“Three years ago, the National Broadband Plan observed that the commission doesn’t have the means to identify `the different types or capacities of broadband services that are supported through the E-Rate program,'” stated Pai.
“We can see the forest, say, whether funds were spent on telecommunications services or basic maintenance, but we can’t see the trees when it comes to specific schools and particular spending practices,” he added. “In short, as the E-Rate program has evolved over the years, we have lost sight of what’s important. A program meant to help kids has instead become too heavily focused on bureaucracy.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also agreed that now is a pivotal moment for technology and connectivity in education.
“Technology has the power to revolutionize education in America, but we are not where we need to be relative to other nations and to the rate of technology adoption in this nation,” commented Clyburn in a recent statement. “And, one of the biggest obstacles to seizing the opportunities of digital learning in America is inadequate bandwidth at our schools and libraries. Simply put, they need faster high-capacity connections and they need them now.”
Last month, the FCC initiated a thorough review and modernization of E-Rate built around three goals: increased broadband capacity, cost-effective purchasing, and streamlined program administration.
A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on E-Rate was issued by the FCC on July 23. It contains more than 330 items that question almost every aspect of today’s program. Initial comments from interested parties are due Sept. 16, and replies to these initial comments are due Oct. 16.
As more schools adopt new learning models powered by blended and online learning, an updated E-Rate will provide more opportunities for schools, libraries and others to secure essential broadband access for the nation’s students.
On Tuesday, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will host a webinar to explore the FCC’s recently announced plans to update E-Rate. The webinar in particular will address the pressing need for schools and students to have improved access to high-speed Internet.
The online presentation – E-Rate 2.0: Defining Drivers and Capacity Needs (4 to 5 p.m. EDT) – will highlight efforts to test the current speeds for Internet access throughout the country and examine how schools can collaborate to improve connectivity.
The speakers will reveal the results of the technology readiness for states conducted by the assessment consortia and Education Superhighway’s ongoing SchoolSpeedTest initiative. They also plan to discuss readiness for digital learning, deeper personalization of content for students, and next generation assessments in 2014.
“The United States is in the bottom half of developed nations for Internet access and speeds available to its citizens,” said iNACOL President and CEO Susan Patrick. “It is vitally important that education leaders work with the FCC to strengthen and update the E-Rate program to make certain our students get the best start possible, regardless of where they learn.”
E-Rate was established in 1997 and represents the federal government’s largest education technology program. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet; today it’s near 100 percent, according to the FCC.