E-rate reform: A sustainable path forward for school and library connectivity

A year ago, President Obama unveiled the ConnectED initiative, declaring that his goal was to connect virtually every school in the United States to high-speed Internet by the end of the decade. A key piece of the administration's plan is reforming the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) E-rate program, which subsidizes communications services for schools and libraries across the country.

There's been a flurry of activity in the past year aimed at addressing the broadband gaps that make it increasingly difficult for schools and libraries to use 21st century digital-learning tools. A wide range of stakeholders weighed in during two rounds of comments at the FCC, and everyone from Obama to local leaders and tech CEOs have called to upgrade America's aging broadband infrastructure. Now, as students and teachers prepare for summer break, the FCC is gearing up to make changes in time to impact the 2015 E-rate funding cycle. The exact details are still being ironed out, but it's clear that more reforms will be needed in addition to those being discussed for the commission's open meeting in July.

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In early June, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated in a blog post that he will push to close the Wi-Fi gap in America's schools this summer. Because nearly 60 percent of schools in the U.S. lack sufficient wireless capacity to support the needs of students — a situation exacerbated by the fact that E-rate rarely has enough money left to help fund Wi-Fi equipment in recent years — Wheeler declared solving the Wi-Fi problem a national priority. He suggested that the commission should put the $2 billion in additional funding it identified in early 2014 "to work now to meet our educators' overwhelming pent-up demand for upgrading Wi-Fi at our schools and libraries." Late last week, the chairman's office released a fact sheet offering more details about what the July E-rate order might look like. The proposal would center on restructuring and prioritizing support for Wi-Fi, in addition to making adjustments to streamline the application process and increase transparency. The changes are designed to be the first in a series of steps to modernize E-rate to meet growing needs and put the program on solid footing for the long term.

By focusing on Wi-Fi, the chairman has smartly identified a critical problem in the current structure of the E-rate program that must be addressed. But increasing wireless capacity is just part of a broader set of reforms that E-rate desperately needs in order to meet its 21st century connectivity goals. Earlier in June, a diverse coalition of over 100 organizations from the education sector, technology, and business communities (including the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute and Education Policy Program) sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to modernize and expand the E-rate program. The letter outlines a series of joint recommendations for improving the program "to achieve our common goal of updating the E-rate program to bring today's schools and libraries into the digital age."

These recommendations include upgrading E-rate to provide schools and libraries not just with Internet connectivity but also sufficient capacity to use new digital learning tools; prioritizing funding to support both high-speed broadband to the premises and ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity over other, outdated technologies; incentivizing schools and libraries to purchase connectivity more efficiently; and simplifying the program to streamline the application process. The letter also urges the FCC to set clear targets for connectivity moving forward, to improve data collection practices and program transparency, and to commit to reviewing E-rate's goals every four years. The proposed reforms would address some of these concerns but not all.

As we have argued before, focusing on infrastructure investments is the key to E-rate's ability to meet the goal of providing a gigabit of capacity per 1,000 students by the end of the decade. While Wi-Fi upgrades are needed so that students, teachers and library patrons can access the Internet on their individual devices, these improvements must be made in conjunction with significant investments in broadband infrastructure that increase overall capacity at their institutions. The majority of schools in New York City, for example, report that they have connections ranging from 1.5 to 50 Mbps to serve the entire institution — speeds that make it practically impossible to spread adequate connectivity throughout the building. Simply put, ubiquitous Wi-Fi cannot achieve its promise without a robust wired backbone that is scalable to meet future needs. That's why a number of stakeholders have recommended that the FCC create a dedicated "upgrade fund" to help schools and libraries cover high upfront costs associated with capital investments to bring fiber to the premises. Many commenters have similarly called for flexibility in that support to accommodate a variety of different solutions, including infrastructure investments from schools and communities themselves.

Of course, there are still hurdles to clear as we move toward broader reforms. Cost has been a complicating factor since the conversation about E-rate modernization began — and recent estimates suggest more money will be needed to ensure the program can be sustained long-term. But by focusing on smart investments now in both wired and wireless infrastructure, the FCC can lay the groundwork for an improved E-rate program. While teeing up an initial round of reforms for the FCC's July open meeting is a step in the right direction, unless those reforms are accompanied by broader changes, the FCC will not be able to reach the goals it laid out a year ago.

Kehl is a policy analyst, and Morris is a senior policy counsel, for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.