FCC Prepares to Vote on E-Rate Overhaul
Schools and libraries hungry for faster and more reliably funded Wi-Fi connections will be watching the July 11 open meeting of the Federal Communications Commission closely.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's long-awaited E-rate modernization plan, which he released in outline form on June 20, will be discussed by commissioners and presumably voted on during the meeting.
Bringing high-speed Wi-Fi to every student and library is at the center of the proposal, which drew praise from some observers, but concerns from education organizations about the sustainability of funding beyond the 2016-17 school year. Wi-Fi is networking technology that allows computers and other devices to communicate over a wireless signal.
As described in a fact sheet, the plan to modernize the 18-year-old E-rate program, which is designed to subsidize schools' and libraries' telecommunications costs, has three main components.
First, it seeks to close the Wi-Fi gap in schools by committing at least $1 billion in guaranteed support for those technologies for the 2015-16 school year, followed by another $1 billion in 2016-17, with a multiyear transition to broadband-only services, eventually helping schools use the Internet for telephone services. Today, three out of five schools lack the Wi-Fi capability to use 21st-century education tools, according to a statement from the FCC announcing the proposal.
The E-rate is the federal government’s largest education technology program, helping U.S. schools and libraries connect to the Internet and use other communications services. In the past 18 years, though, schools’ needs have changed considerably. Here’s how Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, proposes to make improvements to the program:
Close the Wi-Fi Gap
• Commit at least $1 billion to connect more than 10 million students across the country in 2015, and follow that with $1 billion in 2016;
• Provide “multiyear funding predictability” for widespread and equitable distribution of support, and stop cutting rural schools out of Wi-Fi funding;
• Begin transitioning all program funding to broadband, phasing out non-broadband; and
• Adopt clear goals for broadband to measure program success.
Emphasize Smarter Spending
• Set the maximum program subsidy at 80 percent, up to $150 per student, for
internal Wi-Fi (Now it is at 90 percent, and there is no limit on what schools can request);
• Speed up consortium applications to drive down prices;
• Make it clearer how E-rate dollars are spent, and what prices are charged for E-rate services;
• Leverage General Services Administration pricing so schools can buy for less;
• Streamline the application process
• Provide a fast, simple process for multiyear applications;
• Expedite processing of low-price, cost-effective applications;
• Speed up the review of all applications;
• Move to electronic filing of all documents;
• Simplify discount calculations; and
• Establish zero tolerance for fraud and abuse by toughening document-retention and site-inspection rules.
Second, the proposal would make E-rate dollars go further by focusing on processes to drive down prices and increase transparency about how aid under the program is spent.
And lastly, it would streamline the application process to make it easier for districts and schools to use the E-rate program.
If the commission adopts the chairman's proposal, Mr. Wheeler estimates that 10 million students in 2015-16 could get Wi-Fi Internet connections. Nationwide, the proposal would increase funding for Wi-Fi by 75 percent for rural schools, and 60 percent for urban schools, allowing 44 million students and 16,000 libraries to have access to Wi-Fi services by the 2019-20 school year, the FCC said in a July 1 release.
Education Groups React
The State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md., and EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that works for improved school connections, applauded Mr. Wheeler's proposal.
"By acting this summer, the commission can begin supporting wireless upgrades in schools and libraries, ensuring that connectivity not only reaches the building but all the way to students' desks and devices," EducationSuperHighway said in its statement.
The state ed-tech directors' association noted that Mr. Wheeler's proposal reflected many of the organization's priorities for school technology.
But another prominent group that is focused on education technology, the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, was less impressed.
The consortium partnered with EducationSuperHighway in releasing an analysis in May showing that the E-rate program is billions of dollars short of meeting schools' wireless-network needs.
Although finding some pieces of the new E-rate proposal laudable, CoSN's statement on the subject suggested that the plan falls short of providing enough funding to meet President Barack Obama's goal of connecting 99 percent of K-12 students in the United States to high-speed Internet by 2018.
Read an exclusive online-only interview with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
"We need predictable, ongoing support," the CoSN statement said, "not simply one-time investments."
Providing an online educational experience that is transformative will require a greater investment in broadband connections, as well as Wi-Fi and local area networks, the organization said.
Others critical of the FCC plan were disappointed the commission did not commit to a more dramatic expansion of the overall size of the E-rate program, which is supported now at about $2.4 billion a year.
"We believe the only way you can really move forward with programmatic changes to support the president's goals of 99 percent [connectivity] is if you increase funding," Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the 3 million-member National Education Association, said in an interview.
Sustainability of funding is an issue to the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, as well.
"They've articulated they could find $2 billion between the couch cushions over the next two years," said Noelle M. Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy for the AASA. She was referring to Mr. Wheeler's announcement in February that the FCC could repurpose about $2 billion in funding for the E-rate.
"Once you've shaken out all the couch cushions, how do you find more?" Ms. Ellerson said.
'A Step Backward'
The American Library Association urged the FCC to incorporate a portion of the first proposed $1 billion down payment to high-capacity broadband.
"The lack of access to affordable, high-capacity broadband to the building remains a major challenge for so many libraries and schools," the ALA said in a statement. "Such access must be fully funded for eligible applicants, regardless of any new funding models for Wi-Fi services."
Vol. 33, Issue 36, Pages 16-17Published in Print: July 9, 2014, as FCC Prepares to Vote on E-Rate Overhaul