IT Infrastructure

FCC Blueprint Would Restructure E-Rate

By Sean Cavanagh — August 06, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Federal Communications Commission has officially launched an effort to refashion the E-rate program with the release of an ambitious notice of proposed rulemaking, a document that seeks public input on such issues as schools’ use of fiber-optic cable and standards for Web connectivity in schools.

The E-rate, established by Congress in 1996 and overseen by the FCC, provides schools and libraries with funding for discounts on telecommunications services. The aid is derived from fees on telecommunications providers and is designed to improve program applicants’ technological access.

Advocates for improving technology in schools have been clamoring for years for changes to the program, which they say is underfunded and badly antiquated, in terms of the types of Web connections and technology it supports.

Among those calling for change is President Barack Obama, who recently argued in favor of setting the goal of giving 99 percent of the nation’s schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access within five years. Administration officials have said those changes would be supported through a temporary, “one-time capital” expense that would cost phone users no more than $5 per year.

Specifics Lacking

The far-reaching, 175-page notice, released late last month, offers few specific proposals on how E-rate policy should change. Instead, it presents what the FCC commissioners see as shortcomings in the program and poses a series of pointed questions to the public and the nation’s school and technology communities, asking them to weigh in by Sept. 16.

Commissioners have said they have three overriding goals for the program: increasing broadband capacity for schools and libraries; improving purchasing practices to reduce costs and increase the program’s effectiveness; and streamlining the program’s administration.

The FCC currently has three members and two vacant seats. Both the Democrats on the commission, Jessica Rosenworcel and acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, have called for a major reworking of the program and have praised Mr. Obama’s blueprint.

“Without adequate capacity, our students are going to fall short,” Ms. Rosenworcel argued at a recent public meeting, when the notice was announced. “We fail our children if we expect digital-age learning to take place at dial-up speeds.”

The lone Republican on the commission, Ajit Pai, also describes the program as behind the times and notes the amount of money that flows to phone services and other areas. But he has also emphasized a need to reduce waste and increase transparency in the program.

During a speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, Mr. Pai suggested that schools would be more accountable for spending E-rate money wisely if they were required to chip in $1 for every $3 in federal E-rate money they receive.

And Mr. Pai questioned the premise that “funding, or rather an alleged lack of funding, is the main problem with today’s E-rate program.”

“By reducing waste, eliminating misguided incentives, and distributing funds more fairly, we can accomplish more—probably a lot more—with the same amount of money,” he said.

Financial Infusion?

Some of the questions posed in the FCC’S notice appear to echo Mr. Pai’s concerns. For instance, it asks whether the agency should reduce the discount rate, a provision the FCC says created incentives to control costs and improved efficiency within a federal program that supports telecommunications services in rural health care.

The July 23 notice also asks what steps the FCC should take to measure overall program performance, or that of individual school applicants. Ideas include setting target Internet speeds for schools or within schools, or even, more controversially, trying to gauge whether access to E-rate money improves academic outcomes.

Despite what had been championed by the Obama administration, the FCC does not recommend specific dollar amounts and timelines for boosting E-rate funding. Instead, the commission asks for comments on how much funding is necessary and how strictly it should be tied to certain types of technology or applicants.

The notice asks, though, whether the FCC should consider lifting the overall program cap, even temporarily, on E-rate funds, which now stands at about $2.4 billion—far short of the $4.9 billion that schools and libraries requested in fiscal 2013. It also asks how the FCC could boost schools’ buying power by encouraging more consortia of schools to apply for aid.

The document raises the question of how flexible or prescriptive the agency should be when it agrees to finance school projects aimed at increasing broadband access. Some technology advocates, for instance, say fiber-optic cable is the best option for boosting the speed of schools’ Web connectivity, while also giving them the greatest ability to handle increases in demand. Others say less ambitious, lower-priced upgrades are more realistic options for schools.

The notice “indicates to me that they’re serious about a sweeping modernization of the program, and not just an incremental approach,” said Evan Marwell, the CEO of Education Superhighway, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes improved Web access for schools. “There’s an openness to outside-the-box ideas.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as FCC Releases Blueprint for Restructuring E-Rate Program

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

IT Infrastructure From Our Research Center What the Massive Shift to 1-to-1 Computing Means for Schools, in Charts
1-to-1 computing has expanded at a rate few could have imagined prior to the pandemic, creating opportunities and problems.
1 min read
Illustration of laptop computer displaying bar graph.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
IT Infrastructure Internet on School Buses: FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses.
2 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the Texas school system.
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
IT Infrastructure Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk
Most K-12 district tech leaders rate common cybersecurity threats as just low or medium risk, survey shows.
4 min read
Images shows a symbolic lock on a technical background.
iStock/Getty
IT Infrastructure Spotlight Spotlight on Infrastructure Modernization
This Spotlight will help you grasp the reality of school infrastructure, parent privacy concerns, watchdog recommendations and more.