(Editor’s note: The Broadband Report is a regular feature in WRAL Tech Wire.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – E-Rate is hot on The Hill once again.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will seek to discontinue E-Rate funding for legacy technologies in its forthcoming E-Rate modernization order this fall, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said last week.
The agency will vote on new regulations before students return to school in September that will change the structure of the program for the 2015 school year, Wheeler said during a conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Wheeler did not back an immediate increase in universal service fund (USF) offerings for E-Rate. He also said he soon plans to announce a special task force to examine how the government funds broadband deployment through the USF. Specifically, he said, the task force will examine whether USF recipients are adhering to program rules.
What is E-Rate?
Sixteen years ago, the FCC established the Schools and Libraries Universal Support Mechanism, or E-Rate, to bring advanced services to schools and libraries across America. The program represents the federal government’s largest education technology program. The 1996 Telecommunications Act directed U.S. telecommunications providers to contribute to the USF in the form of fees that would subsidize the deployment of broadband infrastructure to American schools and libraries through the E-Rate program.
While the program has been a success, technology has changed significantly since its inception.
In June 2013, 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. That same month, President Barack Obama made a stop in North Carolina to announce the ConnectED initiative, a plan to connect U.S. schools and libraries with broadband Internet connections of at least 100 Mbps with a target of 1 Gbps within five years.
How does ConnectED play in?
In February, President Obama announced plans for an immediate down payment on ConnectED with private-sector support and an additional $2 billion from E-Rate to connect 20 million more students to next-generation broadband and wireless in 2014. The current effort to modernize E-Rate is critical to the success of this initiative.
An estimated 72 percent of public schools today don’t have the broadband speeds necessary to fully access the Internet, according to California-based nonprofit Education Superhighway. While 99 percent of public schools are connected to the Internet, they lack the high-speed connections necessary to support the explosion of devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — and education applications to make full use of the Web in the classroom. Further, for some schools around the country, Internet connectivity has not yet reached the place where the greatest benefits would be realized: in the classrooms.
Mayors: Every classroom needs Wi-Fi
A group of mayors is urging the Obama administration to bring high-speed Internet to more schools and libraries.
Students at every U.S. school should have access to Internet speeds of 100 megabytes per second right now, and 1 gigabyte per second by 2017, the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) said in a letter to the FCC last week.
The mayors also called for each classroom to have Wi-Fi connectivity.
The mayors join a growing number of lawmakers and business executives who have been calling for the changes. In January, dozens of CEOs wrote a letter to the FCC requesting that the agency overhaul the E-Rate program to make sure more students have access to the Internet in their schools and libraries. A group of 25 additional lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, also wrote to the FCC requesting it expand the E-Rate program to include more schools and libraries as quickly as possible.
FCC Order for IP-Transitioning and the Connect America Fund
Another recently announced and important opportunity that will benefit rural schools, libraries and health care sites without access to affordable, adequate bandwidth is the rural broadband experiments announced in late January as part of the FCC Order for IP-Transitioning and the Connect America Fund.
These experiments provide the opportunity for research and education networks (and other non-telecom entities) to submit expressions of interest for last-mile broadband projects to connect schools, libraries and health care sites. The FCC notes that rural areas have greater poverty, lower broadband adoption, and greater economic challenges in the build-out of broadband-capable infrastructure than in other areas of the country.
It should be an interesting year for E-Rate as the conversations continue.