E-Rate Revisions Seen as Good First Step

By Ian Quillen — October 04, 2010 6 min read

It’s a good start.

That seems to be the general feeling among educational technology advocates about the recent reforms to the federal E-rate program, whether they are applauding a new funding index for inflation, the allowance for “dark fiber” connections, or the funding of pilot wireless-learning programs.

While the revisions that were adopted to the $2.25 billion program at the Federal Communications Commission’s Sept. 23 meeting generally have been welcomed, experts say there is still work to do before the program—set up in 1997 to fund discounts for schools and libraries to connect to the Internet—can address fully contemporary technology demands.

Educators laud indexing the funding cap for inflation, but they say funding still needs to be expanded far beyond that level. They praise the new option of extending E-rate-funded Internet services to the community after school hours, but question if “school spots” are an effective solution for sparsely populated districts. And while some worry a pilot program to pay for, according to the FCC’s written order, a “handful” of wireless education efforts would divert money from campus initiatives, others say it’s a baby step on a long path toward truly supporting mobile learning.

In short, experts say the FCC’s revisions may show that it is in tune with the changing technology needs of schools, but that it also has chosen the simplest solutions to bring about the swiftest change.

An FCC spokesman said reform proposals for other programs within the Universal Service Fund, of which E-rate is a part, will be heard before the end of the calendar year.

“I think the commission did a good job of identifying things that they had the ability to do in short order,” said Lucy Gettman, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “I think the next step is to work with Congress and the commission as a more complete update of the Universal Service Fund is approached.”

Raising the Funding Cap

The Universal Service Fund, created by the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, is designed to achieve Congress’ goals for universal Internet service. E-rate is the common name for the fund’s “education rate” program for schools and libraries, which is financed by a universal-service tax paid by telecommunications companies.

The New E-Rate: Changes and Implications

A Funding Upgrade

The annual funding cap of $2.25 billion for the E-rate program will be indexed to adjust for inflation.

IMPLICATIONS: While it’s difficult to say how much that change may affect individual districts, it will mark the first time that the fund has increased since its inception in 1997. Districts across the country applied for far more E-rate aid last year than was available, and others sometimes may not apply because they know the chance of receiving funding is minimal.

A Return to the ‘Dark’ Side

School districts and libraries will again be allowed to purchase online connections with E-rate funding via existing but unused, or “dark,” fiber-optic networks.

IMPLICATIONS: The ability to purchase a connection via an existing fiber-optic network could potentially save schools money while also allowing them to increase their connection speed. The reason is that increasing a fiber-optic network’s speed involves a one-time intervention, which could be less costly in the long term than a monthly charge to increase the speed of a cable or DSL connection. The Federal Communications Commission previously removed dark-fiber networks from the list of approved providers for E-rate-funded connections in 2003.

Schools Are the Spot

Schools and districts will be given the option of extending their Internet connections to the surrounding community during after-school hours, creating “school spots.”

IMPLICATIONS: That option could eliminate one obstacle for school districts that worry about the practicality of assigning online work in locales where many students don’t have the online capability at home to complete it. And it could also be used as an outreach tool in districts where teachers and administrators are looking for a vehicle to help foster a connection with community members.

Pilot Plan for Wireless Takeoff

A handful of schools may win funding for after-school wireless-learning programs using a range of devices, including mobile devices, under a pilot program.

IMPLICATIONS: Currently, most districts that issue wireless devices for students to use after school do so without E-rate funding, because mobile devices bought with such funds are required to remain on campus. Schools winning funding in the pilot would be free of that requirement, potentially making wireless or mobile learning more affordable and practical for some districts that are considering it.

SOURCES: Federal Communications Commission; Education Week

The funding for E-rate, set at $2.25 billion annually since 1997, will increase by $20 million in fiscal 2010 with the inflation index. That might seem meager; according to the FCC’s written order, an increase 30 times as large still wouldn’t meet all the funding demands the program saw in 2008.

But technology directors like Sheryl Abshire from the 33,000-student Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La., said it is at least an acknowledgment that the program’s funding structure needs to change.

“Even in tough economic times, they relented and said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” Ms. Abshire said. “What I’m hoping as an optimistic pragmatist is they will see when the timing is right, and there will be a serious effort to raise the cap.”

Ms. Abshire said the inflation index, combined with newly streamlined applications for E-rate funding, should give technology directors a morale boost. And although some ed-tech advocates wondered if the streamlined process would lead to even more applications, Ms. Abshire said demand for funding is already so great that schools that are not applying now for support are committing “educational malfeasance.” Since very few districts would do that, the new application process won’t result in a spike of applications, she said, but rather more thought-out ones.

John Harrington, the chief executive officer of the education financial consulting firm Funds for Learning and a founding member of the E-Rate Management Professionals Association, also praised the addition of an inflation index, but said calls to increase the E-rate fund won’t disappear.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” Mr. Harrington said. “All of the other little things, those are important. But it starts with what is the funding, and how much is there to support it?”

Other measures potentially may decrease costs for districts, such as the implementation of streamlined applications and the addition of “dark” fiber-optic networks as an E-rate-supported option for Internet connections.

Dark-fiber networks—unused networks owned by public, nonprofit, or for-profit providers—could increase the speed of a school’s connection while also decreasing the cost. That’s because increasing speed on a fiber-optic network requires a one-time intervention, meaning the cost to upgrade over the long term might be lower than with a cable or DSL connection, for which higher speeds often mean more frequent upgrades and higher monthly payments.

At the 12,000-student Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Ill., technology director Keith Bockwoldt said E-rate-funded fiber connections would allow his schools to stop filtering some content.

“We were blocking all of the streaming audio and video traffic to prioritize education subscription sites,” said Mr. Bockwoldt, who stressed that most districts are in desperate need of more bandwidth.

“The problem,” he maintained, “is teachers are using sites like YouTube and Facebook.”

The use of cloud applications, tools that are housed entirely on an online server, would also be less cumbersome on fiber networks, Mr. Bockwoldt added.

Ms. Abshire of Calcasieu Parish agreed that connecting to dark fiber offered great potential, but warned that, because it hasn’t been an E-rate-approved method since 2003, many school districts would be unfamiliar with how best to acquire a connection.

Piloting Mobile Learning

For one new program within the E-rate revisions, school districts will be expected to have some prior expertise.

The E-Rate Deployed Ubiquitously 2011 Pilot Program will offer up to $10 million in total funding to selected programs that incorporate off-campus wireless or mobile learning. But the FCC’s report and order say the quantity of selected recipients likely won’t rise past single digits, and will probably first support programs already in place.

Despite the small scope of the mobile-learning pilot program, Ms. Abshire worries about the drain on an E-rate fund she said is already stretched too thin.

But mobile-learning advocates like Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, said the policy represents an important shift away from the requirement that all mobile devices purchased with E-rate funds stay on campus. Mr. Soloway also said the division between during-school and after-school connectivity is an artificial one.

“It’s an anachronism to make a distinction about in-school and outside-of-school [learning],” he said. “For students today, access is 24-7. And it’s not about anywhere learning. It’s about everywhere learning.”

Meanwhile, schools also will be allowed to give students and community members after-school online access via school-based hot spots that are connected to the Web with E-rate funding.

And while that may prove more practical for more densely populated districts, Ms. Gettman of the National School Boards Association also hopes it can help redefine schools as community hubs.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Revisions to the E-Rate Viewed as a Step in the Right Direction

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