The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on a landmark modernization of its E-Rate funding program.
The 18-year-old federal subsidy helps schools and libraries shoulder the cost of telecommunications equipment, covering up to 90 percent of these expenses. But huge changes are afoot in how these federal dollars will be spent moving forward.
In the past, subsidies have included phone lines and pagers, but with the changing times, federal officials want to redirect more funding to bring broadband and wireless Internet access to nearly every student and library in the country. The goal is part of President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative.
“At the end of this process, the way in which we pay for certain things may need to change. And the things that have historically been paid for by E-Rate may no longer qualify,” FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s vision for modernizing the program consists of three components:
1. Close the Wi-Fi gap in schools by providing $2 billion in reserve funding, including $1 billion for wireless technologies, with another $1 billion over the next fiscal year. To acquire this funding, this shift would phase out E-Rate support for services such as traditional phone lines and pagers in favor of modern services like Voice over Internet Protocol.
2. Maximize existing funds by streamlining the structure for E-Rate funding requests and increasing transparency. The agency also expects to see significant cost savings by leveraging a new partnership with the U.S. General Services Administration, allowing schools and libraries to consolidate their purchasing power for Wi-Fi equipment.
3. Process applications faster and more equitably. A revised review process for E-Rate applications would cut through red tape for smaller requests. The new process would also be more equitable for schools of varying size, according to the FCC.
Implementing these proposals could increase funding for Wi-Fi equipment by up to 75 percent for rural schools and 60 percent for urban schools.
Criticism and Support for E-Rate Changes
Some have criticized the FCC’s change in direction for E-Rate. John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, an E-Rate consulting firm, told EdTech in May that it was a mistake to create a top-down decision process on what technologies schools should implement.
"You can't come up with a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem," Harrington says. "Let the schools make their own priorities, and I guarantee you that you'll get more bang for your buck, because the dollars will be focused where they're needed the most in each district."
Laying a fresh broadband line to schools also doesn’t solve a building’s internal connection problems, Harrington says. According to The Hechinger Report, many school districts don't have the funding to pay for internal systems to support wireless routers, so they rely on copper wiring instead.
A survey of 469 school districts found that a quarter of them used half of their E-Rate subsidies to pay for telephone bills, according to a report by the Consortium for School Networking. The use of funds like these would be phased out under the proposed E-Rate reforms.
Meanwhile, the American Library Association has heralded the arrival of new E-Rate reforms. In a July 7 joint letter to the FCC, the association encouraged the agency to avoid delays, in voting on the measure and supported the goal of expanding Wi-Fi reach and bandwidth at libraries.
Many libraries are stymied by residential-level download speeds, which are further degraded after sharing that connection among a number of computers.
“We cannot afford to dumb down services due to bandwidth limitations,” ALA president Barbara Stripling said in a press release.
In a letter to The Washington Post, Julius Genachowski, former chairman of the FCC, and Jim Coulter, a commissioner of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, called for bipartisan support of the FCC’s efforts for reform, calling it a landmark moment for technology in education.
“It is time to cut through the debate and act,” the pair wrote.
Stay tuned to EdTech for more coverage of the FCC’s vote on E-Rate reforms.