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WHAT’S NEXT FOR E-RATE?: FCC Chairman Talks Rural Access and E-Rate Funding Needs During Ed Tech Summit

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“Making changes to the current rules to rethink how the program supports connecting rural schools and libraries in unserved areas is going to be necessary," Wheelersaid. “But it is also a matter of having sufficient funding and ensuring that schools can afford the ongoing costs of accessing high-capacity broadband networks.”

In a September 29 speech at the 2014 Ed Tech Summit in Washington, DC, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler outlined “next steps” in the evolution of the E-rate program: delivering high-speed internet connections to rural schools and libraries and ensuring that sufficient funding exists to meet E-rate funding needs. Wheeler’s speech follows the FCC’s July 11 decision to modernize the federal E-rate program with the goal of providing greater Wi-Fi access to millions of students.

“Although the most recent step in E-rate modernization necessarily placed an emphasis on Wi-Fi and broadband within schools and libraries, we know that we must still address the challenge of improving the broadband infrastructure to the building for many schools and libraries, particularly in rural America,” Wheeler said at the Ed Tech Summit. “The E-rate program needs to emphasize an equality of opportunity for both urban and rural schools and libraries. … Indeed, the reason for exploring whether more funding is necessary is precisely to answer the question of how to meet the urban and rural needs equally and simultaneously.”

Wheeler noted that 75 percent of rural schools are currently unable to achieve the high-speed connectivity goals set by the FCC, both because they lack the infrastructure to deliver high-speed broadband, but also because of high costs. He offered several solutions, including better incentives in areas with high upfront costs to improve infrastructure and policies that would encourage states to invest in these areas.

Wheeler also stressed that funding is a key part of the solution. “Making changes to the current rules to rethink how the program supports connecting rural schools and libraries in unserved areas is going to be necessary,” he said. “But it is also a matter of having sufficient funding and ensuring that schools can afford the ongoing costs of accessing high-capacity broadband networks.”

Regarding funding, the FCC has been receiving comments from a number of organizations, including the Alliance, on how to meet the future funding needs of the E-rate program, among other topics. In its comments to the FCC, the Alliance calls for an increased funding cap for the E-rate program to ensure that all students, especially those most disadvantaged, have access to high-speed internet connections and anytime, anywhere learning.

During his speech, Wheeler said that a key component of sufficient funding is affordability and how much schools pay for connectivity. Wheeler explained how E-rate applicants pay “widely varying prices” for their high-speed internet connections. For example, he noted that some statewide networks pay as little as $1 per megabit per second per month while others pay more than $15 for the same service.

To combat these differences, Wheeler said that the FCC’s E-rate Modernization Order from July directs the Universal Service Administrative Company to make pricing data publicly available beginning in 2015. It also encourages schools and libraries to submit joint applications in an effort to negotiate lower prices.

“Marginal costs, of course, vary around the country for entirely legitimate reasons, and so should pricing,” Wheeler said. “For example, the lack of fiber or other high-capacity infrastructure can limit a provider’s ability to offer high-speed service at low prices. Or initial deployment and ongoing middle mile costs can be very high for providers that serve schools in rural areas. However, the data we have collected suggests that in many cases broadband service providers can do a lot better for our nation’s schools and libraries.”

The FCC may take action to expand funding for E-rate by the end of the calendar year. For regular updates, visit www.99in5.org.

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