On December 11, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to increase funding for the federal E-rate program by $1.5 billion annually to improve internet access in U.S. schools and libraries. The decision will allow the United States to expand high-speed Wi-Fi access to 43.5 million additional students, more than 101,000 additional schools, and nearly 16,000 additional libraries.
“Today we take the final step in rebooting how we connect our schools, libraries, and most importantly our students to twenty-first-century educational opportunity,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a statement. “The result of increased E-rate investment will be an America with students, teachers, and library patrons able to take advantage of the unlimited opportunities enabled by high-speed broadband. The increase in support is significant. It is justified. And it is smart—including not just more funding, but also important program changes that will ensure more competition for E-rate dollars and will ensure cost-effective spending.”
Created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-rate is the federal government’s largest educational technology program. It provides funding for internet connectivity and other communications services for the nation’s schools and libraries. When E-rate was first enacted in 1996, only 14 percent of the nation’s schools were connected to the internet. Today, nearly all schools and libraries are connected.
Despite that success, E-rate struggled to meet the demand—especially as internet content evolved from simple webpages filled with text to more sophisticated websites that employed images, video, and other features that required more bandwidth. At the same time, the typical school went from containing a single computer lab with a handful of connected computers to a building full of laptops, tablets, and other devices needing an internet connection. As a result, the average school had the same internet connection as the average home but with 200 times more users.
Two-thirds of the nation’s students lack access to high-speed internet (100 Mbps or more) in their schools. Additionally, African American, Latino, low-income, and rural students are more likely to be in schools with slow internet connections (10 Mbps or less) than their peers and less likely to be in schools with high-speed broadband internet needed for digital learning, according to Schools and Broadband Speeds: An Analysis of Gaps in Access to High-Speed Internet, a recent report from the Alliance and the LEAD Commission.
“For two-thirds of American schools, access to the internet is subpar,” Wheeler said. “The difference between today’s slow speeds and fiber speeds is equivalent to the difference between trying to suck peanut butter through a straw, and drinking from a fire hose of information, opportunity, and knowledge.”
In the weeks leading up to the vote, educators nationwide took to Twitter, YouTube, and other social media outlets as part of an #Internet4Schools campaign to express support for high-speed internet connections.
“The FCC’s decision today is the best holiday gift possible for the nation’s students and teachers,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “With increased funding for high-speed internet connections, U.S. teachers and students will spend more classroom time teaching and learning rather than waiting for webpages and videos to load.”
The $1.5 billion increase for E-rate follows FCC action in July to target $1 billion annually to expand Wi-Fi connections in the nation’s schools and libraries. At the same time, the FCC took several steps to make E-rate dollars go further, including increasing transparency on how they are spent and what prices are charged for E-rate services.
To pay for the increase in funding, the FCC expects that consumers will see their telephone bills increase by about 16 cents a month or $1.90 a year.
“Access to the internet is as important to learning today as traditional textbooks were fifty years ago,” said Wise. “For less than the cost of a holiday greeting card, the FCC’s decision will bring the American education system out of the internet dark ages of slow or non-existent internet connections and into a twenty-first-century learning environment of rich, rigorous, and engaging content that can be personalized for every student.”
In addition to the increase in funding, the vote also provides schools and libraries additional flexibility and options for purchasing broadband services to enable schools and libraries to meet their internet capacity needs in the most cost-effective way possible.
The vote passed by a three-to-two margin, with Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voting in support and Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly dissenting.
A press release from the FCC with more information on the vote, as well as statements from all five FCC commissioners, is available at