By Sean Cavanagh and Michele Molnar
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a major increase in the amount of money flowing to the E-rate program—an infusion of cash that much of the education community has been clamoring for as a way to replace slow and out-of-date technology in schools.
The plan announced Monday by Chairman Tom Wheeler would raise the overall funding cap for the program from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion a year.
The E-rate program funds technology improvements in the nation’s schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, through fees on telecommunications providers. The FCC says that the proposed change would result in consumers paying a maximum of an additional $1.90 a year per phone line, or less than $6 per household.
The average total fees paid by a household today with three phone lines are a little more than $34 a year, the FCC estimated.
Wheeler, in a phone call with reporters, described the increased fees to consumers as amounting to a sliver of most consumers’ day-to-day transactions. The new charge is roughly equal to the price of a medium-sized soda or cup of coffee at McDonald’s, he said.
Leaving schools with poor connectivity, by contrast, carries major consequences for both the tech skills of students, particularly those in poor and rural areas, and for the nation’s long-term economic growth, Wheeler argued.
He cited statistics showing that 39 percent of schools in affluent communities meet a standard for reliable Internet speed—compared with 14 percent of schools in low-income and rural areas.
In today’s classrooms, “basic connectivity is now adequate connectivity,” Wheeler said. While the well-connected home is “commonplace,” he said, the same level of connectivity in schools is not, he said.
(The standard Wheeler was referencing was schools having 100 megabits per second of connectivity per 1,000 students.)
The full, five-member FCC would still have to approve Wheeler’s plan for it to take effect. A vote will be scheduled for Dec. 11, he said.
FCC officials described the additional 16 cents-per-month additional cost as a maximum that a household would pay, if schools’ and libraries’ demand for E-rate money reached the available limit, under the new plan.
Currently, the average U.S. household pays a total of about 99 cents per month, combined, to support a series of telecommunication services and programs, which include not only E-rate, but also services for low-income consumers and to support rural health care, the FCC said.
In touting his plan to reporters on Monday, Wheeler was joined by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been a strong backer of the E-rate program.
The increased funding “will help to transform the relationship between digital technology and every child in the country,” Markey said.
Asked how the public would respond to an increase in phone charges, the lawmaker predicted that consumers would be on board with supporting a program that has a clear, nationwide impact.
Americans understand that the E-rate benefits a broad swath of the country, and that all students need a “high-quality digital skill set,” Markey said.
Partisan Divide in Play
Despite the broad support for boosting E-rate funding within the education community, Wheeler’s plan seems likely to provoke a hostile reaction from some quarters of Washington.
For instance, in July, when the FCC approved an initial wave of policy changes to the E-rate, those plans were blasted by the two Republicans on commission.
One of the two GOP commissioners, Ajit Pai, predicted at the time of that decision that the FCC, which has a Democratic majority, would end up making a political calculation and waiting until after the November midterms to approve expanding the E-rate program’s overall funding cap.
The changes approved over the summer by the FCC expanded federal backing for Wi-Fi technologies through the E-rate and included steps meant to reduce bureaucracy and streamline funding to schools. The panel’s vote to set in motion those policies was 3-2 and broke down along partisan lines, with Wheeler and the commission’s two other Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, voting in favor.
Both Republicans, Pai and Michael O’Rielly, voted against the plan, saying it would do little to make the program more efficient.
In a statement released Monday, Pai sounded similar concerns about the new increase in the funding cap, which he said amounted to a “17.2 percent tax increase.”
“Instead of imposing a greater burden on families struggling to make ends meet in this lackluster economy, the commission should pursue fiscally responsible reforms,” the Republican FCC official said. “These reforms would cut the bureaucratic red tape and focus resources on the children and library patrons of poor and rural America, where the need is greatest.”
O’Rielly voiced his own objections, branding Wheeler’s plan as a “spending spree.”
“Sadly, this action comes at a time when many families are still struggling and businesses are trying to regain their footing in the economy,” O’Rielly said in a statement. Despite changes in the program’s structure approved earlier this year, the Republican said he saw no evidence of an effort to “target funding where it is truly needed.”
While the July policy drew strong backing from the education community, many organizations also said at the time that the FCC needed to go much further, and increase the overall funding cap to keep pace with demand from schools and libraries for technology. Several of those education organizations said they wanted funding to rise from $2.4 billion annually to $5 billion.
The new plan would not go that far. But Wheeler’s promise to expand the program’s overall funding drew a positive response from several education organizations.
The FCC plan “will go a long way to help level the digital playing field for our country’s students and ensuring equity,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3 million member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, in a statement.
She noted that the E-rate’s current funding cap has been in place for almost two decades. “We know how much the world—and technology in particular—has changed since.”
Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said his organization and its members have been concerned about the the vast disparities in what some schools pay telecommunications providers for services, and the overall struggles of rural communities to get reliable connectivity.
The new funding provided by the FCC, when combined with the earlier plan approved this past summer, should help on those fronts, he said.
“Where I’m focused is what that additional money’s going to do and what it would be directed toward,” Levin said in an interview. “My understanding is that, at least a portion of that, will close the rural broadband gap.”
Wheeler’s plan also drew the approval of a coalition of organizations representing schools and other interests, including the American Libraries Association; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the National Catholic Educational Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools.
Access, growth, and equity within the E‐Rate program are not sustainable without significant additional funding to support the program’s current and future goals,” the organizations said.
The E-rate proposal comes as the FCC also is reviewing other changes, to open Internet rules, that some believe could have an impact on schools’ use of online resources.
Telecommunications providers want to be able to recoup the costs of delivering heavy-bandwidth content to customers. But some Internet advocacy groups fear that will lead to an erosion of “net neutrality,” or the assurance that content will flow to schools and other consumers in an equal and unrestricted way.
[UPDATE (Nov. 17 and Nov. 18): This post has been updated with comments from FCC officials, including Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and several education organizations.]
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.