From Staff and Wire Reports

(Editor’s note: The Broadband Report is a regular feature in WRAL TechWire.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Friday voted along party lines to begin to transition E-Rate.

E-Rate, the largest U.S. educational technology subsidy program, now has shifted focus on high-speed Internet and increasingly on Wi-Fi in the next few years.

In a 3-2 vote, the FCC approved Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to phase out E-Rate spending on older technologies such as pagers, shift focus to high-speed Internet, and commit $2 billion in the next two years to Wi-Fi – without raising the program’s budget.

The plan had faced criticisms from Republicans and Democrats alike.

To quell a key concern, the final rules ensure that E-Rate’s increased focus on Wi-Fi comes secondary to schools’ and libraries’ requests to fund more basic Internet connectivity.

“While today’s item does not make all of the changes necessary to achieve each and every goal, it does make noteworthy steps in the right direction,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

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 Universal Service Fund (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.

Funded by fees Americans pay on their monthly phone bills, E-Rate has helped connect most U.S. classrooms and public libraries to the Internet, but rules have limited how much money could fund broadband and Wi-Fi.

President Barack Obama last year urged the FCC to expand E-Rate so 99 percent of schools would have access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years, though his ConnectEd Initiative suggested a temporary increase in the phone bill fees that fund the program.

“We’re at a watershed moment,” Chairman Wheeler said during a hearing in Washington on Friday. “Because of what we do today 10 million kids will be connected next year who otherwise wouldn’t. That’s a good days’ work.”

Support for E-Rate Reforms

In a joint letter submitted prior to Friday’s vote addressed to Chairman Wheeler and FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, Jessica Rosenworcel, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly, 10 diverse education organizations expressed support for Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to update the federal E-rate program.

The letter was signed by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), Council of Chief State School Officers, Digital Promise, EducationSuperHighway, Funds for Learning, International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, National Association of State Boards of Education, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

“The improvements that will be made under Chairman Wheeler’s proposal lay the foundation for the permanent expansion of the program that is required to provide an effective education in the 21st century,” the letter said.

In March, the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) also urged the Obama administration to bring high-speed Internet to more schools and libraries The letter stated that 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. They also called for each classroom to have Wi-Fi connectivity.

At the time, the USCM joined a growing number of lawmakers and business executives who were calling for the changes in E-Rate.

In January, dozens of CEOs also 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.

Meanwhile in North Carolina

Efforts are being led in driving towards a digital learning transition in North Carolina (House Bill 44) – a transition that is built around supporting personalized learning for all students. That transition will require a robust network infrastructure down to the classroom level in every public school.

Phil Emer, Director of Technology Planning and Policy at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation in Raleigh, explained just before an FCC workshop on E-Rate in May that the North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative (SCI) brought high-bandwidth connectivity to all public schools in the state and now significant emphasis needs to be on supporting that network infrastructure as well as access inside the schools.

“We have built a model through the SCI that applies rigorous planning, engineering support, and consortium buying to school Internet access.” Emer said a few months ago. “We are eager to apply that model in North Carolina to expanding the SCI to the classroom and individual user level. We believe that our approach, if applied more broadly nationally, could play an important role in a modernized and more efficient E-Rate program.”

Wi-Fi Funding

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. classrooms are connected to the Internet, up from 14 percent when the E-rate program was created in 1997. School administrators say just connecting isn’t enough – they need speed and service in more classrooms and that costs more. Three out of five U.S. schools lack sufficient wireless capability and E-Rate has only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries, Chairman Wheeler wrote in a June 20 blog post.

The commission now will pay for expanded Wi-Fi financing by redirecting $2 billion in existing funds from reserve accounts.

The FCC pledged to devote $1 billion to Wi-Fi in 2015 and another $1 billion in 2016 from unused E-Rate funds, dispensed to schools and libraries on a per-student or per-square-foot basis. After that, the FCC would target to keep spending $1 billion a year on Wi-Fi, seeking new savings from phase-outs of old technologies and more efficient bureaucracy.

Companies benefit from subsidized payments to schools and libraries under the program, including AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and Comcast, according to the Universal Service Administrative Company, a Washington-based nonprofit that administers the funds.

Wheeler’s proposal is flawed because it promises $5 billion for Wi-Fi without identifying a source for the money, Ajit Pai, one of two commission Republicans, said in a July 8 statement.

“The FCC has forfeited this opportunity for real, bipartisan reform of the E-rate program,” Pai said at the meeting Friday. “In five months, maybe six, we’ll be back at this table to talk about how much to raise” consumer phone bills.