On June 20, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a multiyear plan to transition federal E-rate funding away from outdated technologies like pagers and dial-up connections in favor of high-speed wireless broadband for the nation’s schools and libraries. Wheeler said his plan would close what he called the nation’s Wi-Fi gap while making E-rate dollars go further and simplifying the applications process. The five FCC commissioners, including Wheeler, are expected to vote on Wheeler’s plan in mid-July.
Created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the federal E-rate program provides funding to schools and libraries for telephone and internet services. Since 1996, the program has increased the percentage of classrooms with internet connections from 14 percent to nearly 100 percent today. At the same time, however, the program has not evolved with improvements in technology, a fact that Wheeler expounded upon in a June 20 blog post on the FCC’s website.
“Over the past 18 years, E-rate has helped ensure that one of society’s most basic responsibilities—educating our children—has evolved with new technology,” Wheeler writes. “The realities of the internet, however, are different today than they were when E-rate was introduced. The E-rate program must be updated to meet today’s needs of schools and libraries.”
Whereas it was previously acceptable for students to share a school’s computer lab, new technologies like tablets and digital textbooks mean that students need individual connections to the internet, Wheeler notes. He writes that Wi-Fi is the “most cost-effective way” to provide this connectivity, but laments that too many schools lack this capability.
“Today, three out of five schools in America lack sufficient Wi-Fi capability needed to provide students with twenty-first-century educational tools,” Wheeler writes. “As currently structured, E-rate in past years has only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries. Last year, no money was available for Wi-Fi.”
Under Wheeler’s plan, the FCC would commit at least $1 billion in 2015 to connect more than 10 million students to Wi-Fi, followed by an additional $1 billion in 2016, with “predictable support continuing in future years.” It would also include steps to help ensure that rural schools have greater access to E-rate funding.
“While we need to upgrade the connectivity of our schools and libraries, too many parts of rural America lack broadband connectivity altogether,” Wheeler writes. “This is in stark contrast to urban and suburban America, where many consumers have access to broadband at speeds in the hundreds of megabits per second. We cannot leave rural America behind.”
The plan would also take several steps to make E-rate dollars go further, including increasing transparency on how E-rate dollars are spent and what prices are charged for E-rate services. It would implement several changes, making the application process simpler and more efficient.
“No modern business expects to function without access to high-speed internet,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “So why should we expect it of our schools? The E-rate program has been remarkably effective, but like an old cellphone, it is in need of an upgrade. In today’s world, reliable Wi-Fi is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Teachers and students shouldn’t have to worry about crashing their systems if too many students hit ‘enter’ at the same time. America’s students need and deserve a world-class education, and in the twenty-first century, that means having reliable access to the internet.
“By focusing E-rate on high-speed broadband and expanding funding for Wi-Fi, Chairman Wheeler’s proposal for modernizing E-rate lays the foundation for permanent expansion of E-rate that the nation’s schools and libraries so desperately need. I appreciate Chairman Wheeler’s sense of urgency on this matter. I urge the FCC to modernize E-rate, and to quickly take the next step of expanding the program to bring today’s schools and libraries into the digital age.”
More information on Wheeler’s proposal is available at http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2014/db0620/DOC-327777A1.pdf.