FCC Commissioner Calls for Overhaul of E-rate to Help Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — April 12, 2013 3 min read
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A member of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday offered a detailed and far-reaching case for overhauling the E-rate program in order to ensure Web access for students and schools amid rising demands for online access.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for creating an “E-rate 2.0" and said that the pressures that are being put on school districts by the common-core online assessments, and an overall, increasing emphasis on Web-based learning have put on strain on districts’ online capacity.

Eighty percent of the nation’s schools and libraries today say that their broadband connections do not meet their needs, the commissioner told attendees at an event arranged by the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in coordination withthe Software and Information Industry Association’s Ed Tech Government Forum.

“Let’s be honest,” she said, according to a FCC-provided copy of her remarks. “Those needs are only going to grow. School administrators are facing tough choices about limited bandwidth in the classroom. How to divvy it up, what grades and classrooms get it, and what programs they can run on it.”

Established by Congress in 1996, the E-rate is designed to ensure that all schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged or rural communities, have communications services, including the Internet. The program receives funding through fees collected from telecommunications providers, and is administered by the FCC and managed by the Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit organization.

Schools and libraries do not obtain funding directly from the program, but instead apply to receive discounts on the costs of service. Discounts vary, with greater amounts going to poorer applicants.

Demand for the program has created a need for more money to flow to schools, Rosenworcel told the industry group.

“E-rate 2.0 needs more funding,” she said. The program’s size was set 15 years ago, she noted: “That was when .03 percent of of American households had Internet access.”

In her speech, Rosenworcel said the E-rate would prove crucial to cultivating students’ online and overall academic skills, and to keeping the United States competitive with other countries. She called for a number of changes that she said would benefit the E-rate program, including:

• Redirecting savings resulting from audits of another Universal Service-funded program, the Lifeline program, into the E-rate. Recent audits have saved, or are on track to save, hundreds of millions of dollars, she said;

• Setting clear “capacity goals” for schools seeking E-rate funds. E-rate applicants should include information about capacity and needs, the commissioner said. By the 2015 school year, every school should have access to 100 megabits per 1,000 students; by the end of the decade, every school should have access to 1 gigabit per 1,000 students;

• Encourage more public-private sector partnerships that would help create “cost-effective technologies; educational applications, and devices"; and

• Creating a simpler process for E-rate applications. This should include allowing multi-year applications, and those from consortia, which will reduce paperwork and administrative expense, she said.

For these proposals to take effect, they would need the approval of the full communciations commission. We’ll know whether Rosenworcel’s ideas have the necessary political traction in the months and years ahead.

[UPDATE: (10 a.m.) I’ve updated the post to reflect the various ed-tech groups involved in the summit where the commissioner made her remarks.]

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.