Experts mark 20 years of E-Rate

Experts, including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and former senators Edward Markey and John Rockefeller,  recently gathered in Washington, D.C. for the E-Rate Summit on Capitol Hill, followed by the 20th Anniversary of E-Rate Celebration.

SmartBrief was on the ground for the event. Here are some top takeaways about E-Rate successes and its future potential.

Successes

Since its launch in 1998, E-Rate has channeled $46 billion to help students, said Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), who called the program a “jewel of government action.” The program was first proposed by senators John Rockefeller IV (D-WV) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) as an amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) co-authored. “This was an amazing effort,” Rockefeller said. “It was a day of bipartisanship.”

E-Rate has helped expand connectivity for schools and libraries across the country. Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of Education Superhighway, remarked that while only 14% of public-school classrooms had an internet connection in 1998, the number by 2012 had risen to 99%.

While the original goal of E-Rate was to get internet access in every school and library, its focus has expanded to include access to adequate broadband. Marwell noted that by 2010, 80% of schools reported needing increased broadband. Activists’ efforts resulted in the SEC’s instituting E-Rate 2.0, which increased funding devoted to broadband from $1.4 billion per year to $2.5 billion, said Marwell.

“There is no reason to let other nations outspend us, out educate us, and out achieve us,” said FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. 

An important part of E-Rate is its predictability. Lenny Schad, the chief technology information officer for the Houston Independent School District, said E-Rate has given his team “confidence to build up our technology infrastructure.”

Director of public policy for the National Catholic Education Association Dale McDonald agreed: “It is an essential component of what our schools are able to do.”

Program potential

E-Rate has influenced millions of students and contributed to the progress of American digital infrastructure, but there is still work to do. Advocates continue to work for students’ equal access to information.

6.5 million students still lack sufficient broadband, and 10,000 schools lack sufficient Wi-Fi, Marwell said. Lauren Abner, the technology consultant for the department of libraries and archives of Kentucky, noted that many libraries also still lack connectivity.

Speakers mentioned several ways E-Rate might be improved. Chief among these was a simpler application process for E-Rate funding.

Turnaround time on E-Rate applications is about 12 months, which could be better, said Adam Dubitsky, director of policy in the Maryland governor’s office. McDonald suggested that an easier application process would bolster a sense of sustainability and predictability of the funding among E-Rate recipients.

The most important message repeated by speakers was the need for continued advocacy and support for the E-Rate program.

Schools and libraries’ technology infrastructures need to be replaced regularly, and consistent E-Rate funding helps keep important programs running. “Great programs like E-Rate do not thrive without continuous attention and care,” FCC commissioner Rosenworcel said. “We need to fight for the progress we’ve made and the progress to come.”

Teresa Donnellan is an editorial assistant at SmartBrief.

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