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Q-and-A: Overhauling E-Rate

9 min read


This post is sponsored by Funds for Learning.

In July, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a number of changes to E-Rate, the connectivity program for education. The goal of the new guidelines, which earmark $5 billion in funding over the next five years, is to expand access to high-speed Internet services in schools and libraries.

But E-Rate isn’t just about faster broadband, says FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. It’s about providing schools and libraries with an infrastructure that supports true 21st century learning. SmartBrief talked with Commissioner Rosenworcel about the new E-Rate guidelines and why we need to be bold as we prepare students for the competitive global economy.

How will E-Rate funding help close the digital gap?

The FCC’s E-Rate program is the nation’s largest education technology program. Thanks to support from E-Rate, we have connected more than 95 percent of school classrooms to the Internet. That might sound like the job is done — but nothing could be further from the truth. That’s because the challenge today is not about connection, it’s about capacity.

Too many of our schools and libraries that rely on E-Rate support access the Internet at speeds as slow as 3 megabytes. That is lower than the broadband speed of the average American home, but with 200 times as many users! That means too many schools are unable to take advantage of the most innovative teaching tools. It means that too many schools are stuck in the analog era and unable to prepare their students for the digital economy that awaits them after graduation and beyond.

The good news is that this summer the FCC took steps to fix this problem. We updated E-Rate, refocusing it on high-capacity broadband and making the program more efficient. We also put capacity goals in place. In the near term, we want to have 100 MB per 1,000 students to all of our schools. In the long term, we want to have 1 gigabyte per 1,000 students to all of our schools.

I think we can reach these goals. But to do so, we need to do more than we did with our E-Rate reform this past summer. We need to raise the E-Rate funding cap. Right now, we have a cap in place that limits funding based on estimates from back in 1998. Technology was in a very different place 16 years ago. So this cap is overdue for an update. At a minimum, we need to do something about the fact that since 1998, inflation has cut the purchasing power of the program by roughly $1 billion in support per year.

What impact does the FCC want to see for the $100 million earmarked for rural broadband trials?

For decades, the FCC has had universal service programs to support the deployment of modern communications networks in rural areas that are high cost and hard to serve. These programs provide a boost to market forces and infrastructure deployment in some of our country’s most remote communities. They are vitally important for rural America, and also really complicated to keep updated. Through our rural broadband experiments we will test new ideas for the delivery of modern communications in our rural communities. I hope we see some creative proposals for these trials, learn from what we fund, and then use what we learn to update our universal service programs across the board.

What is the primary impact that the FCC wants the program changes to have for schools and libraries?

We need more speed, more simplicity, and more spending smart. Getting these kind of reforms in place is a process. I think of it as E-Rate 2.0.

Our E-Rate 2.0 reform efforts started this past summer, when we focused on speed. For the first time, we developed capacity goals for the program. We also set targets for libraries that are on par with these goals.

We need to make progress on these goals now because we have moved from a world where a connected computer lab down the hall in a school or library is nice-to-have to a world where high-speed service everywhere is need-to-have. In schools, we are moving to more one-to-one device learning with digitized content. In libraries, we are seeing more patrons coming in with their own devices and searching for high-speed signals for research and entertainment. That is why a centerpiece of our E-Rate reform this past summer involved using the program to expand access to Wi-Fi in our schools and libraries..

This past summer we also took steps to make it simpler for schools and libraries to apply for E-Rate support. The program is very complicated. I think it has become too bureaucratic. So going forward we need to be on guard for additional ways to streamline our rules and make it simpler for applicants to navigate the process and benefit from the support it provides.

But to really make a big difference with E-Rate 2.0 and reach our capacity goals, we need to spend smart. So I think we need to have an honest conversation about raising the E-Rate cap. As I noted before, the funding system for the program was sized back in 1998. I don’t think we should educate the next generation with a support system frozen in the age of dial-up. So I think it is time to address this issue and make our spending policies smarter.

How will the FCC evaluate the effectiveness of the program changes? What will positive results look like?

From my perspective, a positive result means more support for high-speed services to schools and libraries across the country through the E-Rate program. A positive result also must mean an E-Rate program that works better for the schools and libraries that depend on it.

How will the new rules address increasing demand for Internet connectivity in the future? Do you see the rules evolving to also include broadband access at home for students who cannot afford Internet services?

We cannot forget that in a world where students must increasingly rely on online resources and digital content in the classroom, they also need access to broadband when they go home.

However, three in 10 households in the United States do not subscribe to broadband services at any speed citing lack of affordability, lack of relevance. At the same time, we know that seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires Internet access. So imagine being a student in one of these households. Though there is some evidence suggesting that there is more Internet access now available through smartphones in low-income homes, imagine how hard it is to do basic research, develop a paper or apply for a scholarship on a small, pocket-sized device.

I think an expanded E-Rate program can help, because studies show that access to high-speed broadband in classrooms can encourage broadband adoption at home. That means students can be change agents, demonstrating why access to high-speed service is compelling for their families at home.

In addition, under the E-Rate School Spots program, we allow schools to keep their doors open after hours to allow members of the community to access the Internet. This can be especially helpful for access in rural areas. At the same time, it reinforces the importance of libraries as community broadband access points.

But ultimately we will need to look for other ways — in the public and private sector—to address this homework gap and bridge this new form of the digital divide.

Does the FCC envision further changes to reform the E-Rate program in the future? In 10 years, what do you hope will be your E-Rate legacy?

Great programs, like E-Rate, do not thrive without continuous review and support. So I think we need to keep updating E-Rate and improving our policies.

This is a terrific program that has done so much good in our schools and libraries. But as we shape E-Rate 2.0 for the digital age, I think we need to be bold. Because this is not just a matter of getting schools and libraries connected—it’s a matter of our global competitiveness. The world is flat. Knowledge, jobs, and capital will migrate to places where workers have digital age skills, especially those in STEM fields.

The rest of the world recognizes this and other nations are leading the way when it comes to bringing broadband to schools. In South Korea, 100% of schools are wired with high-speed broadband. In fact, with so much capacity, an effort is underway in South Korea to transition students from traditional textbooks to digital readers by 2016. In Estonia, all schools are connected and there is a nationwide effort to teach students as young as seven years old how to write code. In Uruguay, nearly all primary and secondary schools have been connected and every primary student has access to a free laptop. In Thailand, the government has established a one tablet per child policy in an effort to reduce the education gap between the nation’s urban and rural children. By the end of next year, the government will have distributed devices to 13 million school children. The list goes on.

Of course, these countries are different than the United States. They have different cultures. They have different markets. They have different education systems. But we can still take from these examples that improving broadband capacity must be a national priority.

So we are at a crossroads. We can let other nations outspend us, out educate us and out achieve us. Or we can be courageous and do something about it. As a policymaker, and a parent, I hope in 10 years all American students have the ability to gain the digital age skills they need to compete, no matter who they are, where they live or where they go to school.

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