E-Rate Update

The program’s guidelines haven’t been updated since its 1996 introduction.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Cathy Cruzan

CREDIT FCC Portals II Building WashDCOn March 6, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Public Notice revealing E-rate program reforms under consideration by the agency. The notice seeks public reaction to proposed modernization efforts. It also outlines changes proposed by educators, school administrators, school districts and consortia, and librarians.

The FCC announced three proposed goals for this process:

  1.      Ensure schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband to support digital learning.
  2.      Maximize the cost-effectiveness of E-rate funds.
  3.      Streamline the program’s administration process.

In order to achieve equitable broadband distribution, the Public Notice seeks comment on several topics, including: how to best distribute support among applicants for high-speed connections to school and libraries; how to prioritize applications for deployment

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) surveyed school district leaders, and found that 57 percent believe their schools’ wireless networks cannot handle a one-to-one student-to-device deployment.

costs in the event that the demand for such funds exceed availability; and which objective impact efficiency metrics to use in prioritizing applications.

The Public Notice focuses on three areas that will encourage cost-effective purchasing: consortium purchasing and bulk buying, technology planning and data collection, and transparency.

To streamline the administrative process, the Commission wants input on how best to minimize the administrative burdens and overhead associated with applying for, and receiving, E-rate support.

Changes are slated for Funding Year 2015 and planning begins this fall, with changes impacting the flow of funds to begin no earlier than July 1, 2015. The Public Notice requests input from stakeholders, with comments due by April 7, and reply comments due by April 21.

The Public Notice also seeks input on restoring discounts for on-campus broadband connectivity, and doing so in an equitable manner for all eligible schools and libraries. In addition, it asks for comments on a one-time targeted surge of support for schools and libraries that lag behind in broadband connectivity. A reduction or lower prioritization of support for analog telephone services, and further ideas for well-defined, time-limited demonstration projects to achieve cost savings and innovation within the E-rate program, are also being examined.

Although the Public Notice does not directly address increases to the program’s $2.38 billion annual budget, the FCC did leave open the possibility that other changes not listed in the Public Notice could be made by the Commission.

Modernizing the E-rate program is a pressing concern—the program’s guidelines and principles haven’t been updated since its introduction by President Clinton in 1996.

Since then, Internet use has increased exponentially, yet funding has lagged behind the demand. In a March 13 webinar, John Harrington of E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning, made a compelling argument for E-rate reform. Harrington pointed out that demand for funding tripled between 1998 and 2013, from $1.3 billion to $3.6 billion, while funding remained frozen around $2.4 billion.

Harrington also explained that a 2012 Funds for Learning survey of E-rate applicants revealed that only 10 percent of schools feel they are “ready for tomorrow.” This means that 90 percent of schools do not have the infrastructure to support contemporary learning technology. In support of these findings, Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) surveyed school district leaders, and found that 57 percent believe their schools’ wireless networks cannot handle a one-to-one student-to-device deployment.

The Public Notice marks a commitment to President Obama’s goal of connecting 99 percent of schools to high-speed Internet within the next five years. Internet access is necessary in today’s schools to utilize modern learning techniques, but many schools are lacking a sufficient connection. The need for E-rate reform is most pressing in poorer and rural areas, where schools have inadequate Internet access compared to more affluent areas. This need will become even greater as more schools adopt the Common Core State Standards. The new guidelines for academic instruction require students to take assessments online. This puts a tremendous strain on the bandwidth capabilities of many U.S. schools. Increased E-rate funding, along with other changes, will make it possible for under-equipped schools to acquire the bandwidth they need to help students succeed.

The Public Notice is an important first step in a process that will change the E-rate program in the near future. If you support increasing E-rate funding for impoverished schools, reach out to the FCC and your congressional representative.

Cathy Cruzan is president at Funds For Learning, one of the nation’s largest e-rate consulting firms.

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