But access alone isn't enough when so many students and teachers carry personal or school-owned devices to campus and digital learning resources continue to proliferate and mature.
Unfortunately, paying for the network capacity to support reliable connectivity for all of these devices during the school day is a challenge for all but the nation's richest schools. This is where E-Rate has proved so valuable.
The largest single source of educational technology funding in the United States, E-Rate makes it possible for schools and libraries to acquire telecommunications services and Internet access, as well as wiring, Wi-Fi routers and more, at discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent.
But demand far exceeds supply, and the program is at a crossroads.
At its inception, E-Rate had an annual commitment cap of $2.25 billion (indexed to inflation since 2010). But the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, reported that for the 2013 funding year, applicants sought funding in excess of $4.9 billion — more than twice the 2013 cap of $2.4 billion. Not only is E-Rate overburdened, it's cripplingly underfunded.
NOW and Next for E-Rate
In June 2013, President Obama launched ConnectED, an initiative to bring high-speed broadband Internet access to 99 percent of the nation's students by 2018. Soon thereafter, the FCC announced its intent to modernize E-Rate, ushering in a period of both internal evaluation and public comments that continues today. (The FCC's public comment period for its proposed reforms ended April 21. But Funds For Learning, a nonprofit that helps schools and libraries navigate the E-Rate application process, continued to seek public comments through June 4 and will compile that feedback into a briefing to be presented to the FCC later this year.)
The FCC's proposed reforms aim to achieve three goals: increase connectivity to high-capacity broadband; enable efficient purchasing through bulk buying, consortia and competitive bidding improvements; and cut red tape to speed, streamline and increase transparency in all E-Rate application reviews.
Major industry organizations have weighed in along the way.
The International Society for Technology in Education has recommended increasing E-Rate's annual cap to $5 billion; setting national bandwidth-focused goals; focusing on broadband connectivity by moving wireless access points and local area network controllers to a higher priority funding status; and giving rural applicants slightly larger discounts. The Consortium for School Networking, meanwhile, called on the FCC to increase E-Rate funding, expedite application processing and set aside significant funding for internal connections, beginning immediately with a $2 billion down payment.
57% Percentage of U.S. public schools that require Wi-Fi upgrades
More recently, CoSN and the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway announced that an additional $3.2 billion is needed to realize the high-speed wireless goals that ConnectED seeks — an assertion that Funds For Learning CEO John Harrington called a "bombshell" because it doesn't include support for maintenance of existing network infrastructure, among other things.
It remains unclear how all of these developments will affect school budgets and technology offerings in the years ahead. It's possible we'll be well into the 2014 funding year (which runs from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015) before answers emerge.
But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reportedly wants to move quickly. "To have an impact in the 2015 school year, the FCC will need to act this summer to adopt new rules modernizing E-Rate, including the program's mechanism for distributing support," he said just last month. "If we don't move quickly on new rules, we will miss the opportunity for Wi-Fi to have its greatest impact in the coming funding year."