IT Infrastructure

FCC Delays, Denials Foil Rural Schools’ Broadband Plans

Fiber-optic construction put on hold
By Benjamin Herold — October 26, 2017 5 min read

Hundreds of state and local efforts to connect rural and remote schools to fiber-optic networks have been delayed or rejected by federal officials during the past two years, jeopardizing the push to bring high-speed internet to the country’s hardest-to-connect classrooms.

Broadband proponents say the problems stem from confusing barriers erected by the Federal Communications Commission and the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversee and administer the E-rate, a $3.9 billion program to help schools and libraries pay for internet access and other telecommunications services.

“If the commission really wants to close the digital divide, they should be rolling out the red carpet for these fiber projects,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group EducationSuperHighway. “Instead, they are rolling out the red tape.”

Under former President Barack Obama, the Democrat-led FCC overhauled the E-rate in 2014, raising the program’s spending cap and shifting its focus to broadband and Wi-Fi. Included in the changes were new “special construction” rules intended to help rural and remote schools that fall outside of telecommunications companies’ existing service areas, by letting them use federal dollars to build or lease new high-speed fiber-optic networks.

In 2016, 426 applicants to the E-rate program sought such special-construction funds, according to an analysis of public E-rate data by Funds for Learning, a consulting group that helps thousands of schools and libraries seeking E-rate funds. But more than half of those applications were denied, compared with less than 4 percent of E-rate applications overall, the group found.

Projects in Jeopardy

The problem isn’t getting better, according to the Funds for Learning analysis. As of mid-September, well over 90 percent of 2017 special-construction funding requests were still pending.

On the ground, such problems have cast into doubt projects such as a $7.3 million effort to bring fiber-optic cable to schools in northeastern Utah, one of the most remote areas of the continental U.S.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Such holdups would seem to run counter to the priorities of Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner whom President Donald Trump appointed to run the agency in January. Pai has long said he wants to streamline the cumbersome E-rate bureaucracy and expand broadband access to rural America.

In a statement, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield declined to address the specific concerns raised around the special-construction applications, instead pointing to Pai’s recent efforts to improve the processing of E-rate applications in general.

“The pace of E-rate decisions and disbursements for funding year 2017 has improved,” Wigfield said. “The chairman is committed to building on that improvement.”

Frustrated by Delays

Overall, the E-rate program has contributed to “extraordinary progress” in connecting schools to high-speed internet, according to a recently released report from EducationSuperHighway. Since 2013, more than 35 million K-12 students have gained access to school internet that meets minimum federal connectivity targets, and the cost of school broadband has declined dramatically.

See Also

Rural schools are often charged outrageous rates for lousy Internet service. Can billions of federal dollars and a menu of market-based reforms fix the problem?

But more than 2,000 schools still don’t have fiber-optic connections, EducationSuperHighway found. More than three-fourths of those are in rural areas.

New Mexico is one of the states that has attempted to address the challenge by taking advantage of the new E-rate rules. In 2015, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez earmarked millions of state dollars to match federal money expected to become available for special-construction projects.

During the 2016 E-rate funding cycle, 13 New Mexico districts sought such federal funds, submitting special-construction applications to the Universal Service Administrative Company.

But decisions on those applications “stalled,” Martinez wrote in a scathing letter to USAC in October 2016.

“Our school districts are hesitant to invest in a federal program that may not deliver on its promises,” Martinez’s letter reads. “As a result of USAC failing to reimburse our state public schools and libraries in a timely manner, progress has been delayed in connecting more New Mexico students to faster internet speeds.”

Across the country, it’s become clear that any special-construction projects are being “flagged for special scrutiny,” according to Brian Stephens, an analyst for Funds for Learning. Districts looking to build or lease new fiber-optic networks have been denied at disproportionately high rates, Stephens said, often after lengthy delays and for reasons that remain murky.

Take, for example, the experience of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network, a state organization that during the past two decades has successfully leveraged E-rate funds to help bring 1 gigabit-per-second or faster fiber-optic connections (which meet not only current federal connectivity targets, but also future targets) to all but a handful of Utah’s 1,098 K-12 schools.

In July 2016, the group applied for roughly $3 million in E-rate funds to run 70 miles of fiber through the mountains of Daggett County, with the aim of giving students in remote schools there the same high-speed connections as their peers in most of the rest of the state. STRATA Networks, a private telecommunications company, committed to put up over $4 million in private capital for the project.

USAC officials took 14 months to render a decision, repeatedly requesting the same information from Utah officials and requesting proprietary information that STRATA considered confidential. Then, this September, USAC denied the project, confounding the executive director and CEO of the Utah network, Ray Timothy, who had been planning the project since 2012.

Costs Are Rising

The Daggett County project should be a model for the rest of the country, Timothy said. To the best of his knowledge, the network has followed every federal guideline and answered every question. His last hope is that Pai and the FCC will intervene and overturn the earlier denial, an outcome that Timothy requested during a face-to-face meeting with Pai in Washington in late September.

Wigfield, the FCC spokesman, said that all E-rate applicants have the right to multiple opportunities for appeal.

At this point, though, Timothy said that even if USAC’s initial denial is reversed, construction on the Daggett County project won’t be able to happen before winter. And costs have already gone up, in part because the administrative delays have lasted longer than the leases on the equipment that was to be used to lay the new fiber-optic cables.

“We have an extensive history working with USAC and the FCC, and it’s always been a very positive experience,” Timothy said. “We haven’t seen [barriers] to this degree in any of our projects in the past.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as FCC Delays, Denials Foil Rural Schools’ Broadband Plans

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
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
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
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

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 School District Data Systems Are Messed Up. A New Coalition Wants to Help
Organizations representing states and school districts have teamed up with ISTE to help make data systems more user-friendly and secure.
3 min read
Conceptual collage of arrows, icon figures, and locks
Sean Gladwell/Moment/Getty
IT Infrastructure More Families Have Internet Access. So Why Hasn't the Digital Divide Begun to Close?
A new study says low-income families’ access to the internet has soared in the past six years. But there are other barriers to connectivity.
3 min read
Glowing neon Loading icon isolated on brick wall background. Progress bar icon.
Mingirov/iStock/Getty Images Plus
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
IT Infrastructure Whitepaper
2021 Best Practices Guide: Education Broadband
In this guide, we provide actionable steps, timelines, and tips to help you launch and sustain a successful student WiFi program.
Content provided by Kajeet
IT Infrastructure Remote and Hybrid Learning Are Declining. But the 'Homework Gap' Will Still Be a Problem
Schools are returning to in-person instruction, but students' connections to the internet at home remain spotty.
2 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an Advanced Placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were given to district students during the pandemic.
Tony Gutierrez/AP