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

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Applications are in for E-Rate funding for the next school year, and schools and libraries have responded to the FCC’s program reforms by seeking a total of $3.9 billion in support.

The Federal Communications Commission said last week it will be able to honor nearly $2.3 billion in eligible requests for telecommunications services and Internet access, and about $1.6 billion for internal connections and Wi-Fi under the E-rate program for 2015 funding year, which spans July 1 to June 30, 2016. It also is the first time in three years that the E-Rate program had any money available for Wi-Fi.

Efforts are being led in driving towards a digital learning transition in North Carolina and throughout the country. E-Rate, the largest educational technology subsidy program in America, now has shifted focus on high-speed Internet and increasingly on Wi-Fi in the next few years to meet this digital demand.

Last year, the FCC proposed a more direct way to boost funding to E-Rate.

In July, the FCC voted along party lines on a modernization order to begin to transition E-Rate to phase out spending on older technologies such as pagers, shift focus to high-speed Internet, and commit $2 billion in the first two years to Wi-Fi – without raising the program’s budget. The goal was to make the program more efficient and transparent so schools and libraries would get the most “bang for their E-Rate buck.”

Six months later, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he wanted a 62 percent, or $1.5 billion, increase on the cap that the agency could spend to bring Internet to schools (from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion). The White House backed the FCC proposal to raise the E-Rate cap, calling it an “essential step” in the ConnectED initiative.

The FCC established the Schools and Libraries Universal Support Mechanism, or E-Rate, to bring advanced services to schools and libraries in the United States. 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 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 prior to last year’s overhaul strictly limited how much money could fund broadband and Wi-Fi networks.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. classrooms now are connected to the Internet, up from 14 percent when the E-rate program was enacted. School administrators, however, say just connecting isn’t enough – they need speed and service in more classrooms and that costs more.

According to EducationSuperHighway, 63 percent of schools lack the proper Internet infrastructure to support digital learning. Three out of five U.S. schools lack sufficient wireless capability. And, up until recently, E-Rate had only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries.

The FCC pledged to devote to Wi-Fi $1 billion this year 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, according to the commission’s fact sheet.

“Through their ambitious requests, schools and libraries have told us E-Rate reform was needed and appreciated,” commented Chairman Wheeler. “Work is already underway preparing for next year’s introduction of other changes we made to the E-rate program to support the expansion of high-speed fiber connections.”