Dec 16 2014

FCC Expands E-Rate Cap by $1.5B in Pursuit of ConnectED’s Goal

Schools and libraries will have access to more funding for Internet services as a result of the program’s expansion.

The federal E-Rate funding program will be boosted by $1.5 billion, to a total of $3.9 billion annually, after a 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Dec. 11.

The E-Rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and Internet services to schools and libraries. In July the FCC voted to modernize the program with new funding measures and streamline the application process.

The spending-cap increase comes on the heels of a large push from the White House's ConnectED initiative, which seeks to provide high-speed Internet to 99 percent of classrooms by 2018. President Barack Obama said at a November summit for ConnectED that this goal is a reality for fewer than 40 percent of public schools.

First E-Rate Increase in Four Years

E-Rate’s original annual cap was set at $2.25 billion in 1997. It remained at that rate until 2010, when it was raised to $2.4 billion to adjust for inflation. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed the $1.5 billion increase to make up for the lack of an inflation adjustment for the program from 1997 to 2010.

“The increase in support is significant. It is justified. And it is smart – including not just more funding, but also important program changes that will ensure more competition for E-Rate dollars and will ensure cost-effective spending,” Wheeler said in a news release.

E-Rate is funded through the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which assesses fees on phone bills. The current fee is 99 cents per month for each landline and mobile connection; consumers will pay another 16 cents per month to cover the funding-cap increase.

That burden on taxpayers was highlighted in written statements from the FCC’s two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who cast dissenting votes during the Dec. 11 session.

“While those who can afford to live in Georgetown, Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Malibu might scoff at the increased taxes, families in middle America are sick of being nickeled and dimed by Washington politicians,” Pai said.

'Monumental' Boost for Schools and Libraries

However, the funding increase was merely a “fiscally conservative” step in the right direction for John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an E-Rate consulting firm. Harrington noted in a blog post that the additional funding raises E-Rate’s maximum financial support per student from $46.53 to $75.45.

“Going from $46 to $75 per student is quite a jump — a long overdue, fiscally conservative and probably still-not-enough, but greatly appreciated jump,” Harrington writes.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said in a news release that his organization was proud to have worked with the FCC to modernize the E-Rate program and boost its funding.

“Collectively, it is the first major comprehensive modernization of the E-Rate program and a bold step toward supporting our nation’s schools and libraries as they navigate current and future connectivity needs and uses,” Domenech said.

The American Library Association took a lighthearted approach in preparing for the FCC vote by creating Bingo game cards filled with E-Rate buzzwords. After the vote, ALA President Courtney Young said in a news release that the FCC’s increase of the program’s funding “marks the culmination of more than 18 months of ALA’s extensive and unwavering advocacy on behalf of libraries across the country.”

“Sometimes the government’s words are far greater than their actions — today is not one of those times,” Young said. “The commission’s action is monumental and will make a critical difference for the libraries and schools in our nation, and even more importantly for the communities and students they serve.”

The change, approved on Dec. 11, will go into effect at the start of the 2015 fiscal year for schools, which begins July 1.

Giuseppe Ramos/Thinkstock

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