As summer vacation approaches, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving forward on its plans to bring next-generation Internet connectivity to schools and libraries across the country. Big changes are likely coming in the next few months that will shift the way that E-rate—a program that subsidizes communications services for schools and libraries under the Universal Service Fund—supports high-speed Internet access.
The FCC has been in the process of updating the E-rate program for over a year, officially opening up a rulemaking proceeding in July 2013 to gather input on how to modernize the program to meet the growing connectivity needs of schools and libraries. President Obama has made it a priority too, incorporating E-rate reform into his Administration’s ConnectED initiative (along with teacher training through the Department of Education to help incorporate digital tools into classroom learning) and mentioning it in the 2014 State of the Union address. In March, the FCC picked up the issue once again, releasing a Public Notice with a focused set of questions on the best path forward to direct money toward high-speed Internet access for the 2015 funding year. Several hundred constituent groups weighed in on the process, including New America’s Open Technology Institute and Education Policy Program.
We outlined a series of broader priorities for E-rate reform last fall based on the idea that the program should be updated to better support libraries and schools in their roles as hubs for connected communities. In the recent round of comments, we focused on two of those areas in greater detail: providing funding for high-speed connectivity both to and within schools and libraries, and improving data collection and transparency to create a program that is more efficient and better understood. Our comments include recommendations about how the FCC should use additional funding to support the capital investment costs required to bring high-capacity broadband (which means fiber in the vast majority of cases) to schools and libraries, and how to restructure the existing program to provide better support for high-speed wireless networks within and beyond institutional walls. We also urge the FCC to improve its data collection and application processes to get better information about speeds and prices and to make that data available to E-rate applicants, researchers, and the public to improve program evaluation. These are common sense but also forward-looking ideas that would make the E-rate program more efficient and more effective in the future. Ultimately, we believe these efforts will help ensure that all students, families, and community members have access to the educational resources needed to develop 21st century skills.Read the full text of New America’s latest comments and reply comments on E-rate modernization.