Evolving E-Rate

Why our technology support structures must be updated and refined to keep pace

GUEST COLUMN | by Brian Stephens

Best Buy mid 90sOkay, I’ll admit it:  I’m a nerd.  As much as the self-conscious among us would prefer to be known as technologists, at the end of the day you realize that the world is going to call it how they see it, and we’re stuck with the label.

But we – ahem – technologists bring a vital perspective to the world on all things circuitry.  We approach the evolution of technology with a reverence, a respect, that is often lost on the more pragmatic among us.  It’s why we voraciously consume information about bleeding-edge technologies, but at the same time collect old (nay, vintage) computers and get a kick out of browsing Best Buy circulars from the mid-90’s.  We take a keen interest not only in the progression of technology itself, but also how it influences and shapes our society and culture.

And so it is that as new versions of our favorite operating system are released, or the gadget that we never knew we needed but now can’t live without just got 20 percent faster, the ways that we interact with that technology are refined and updated. The ways that we communicate evolve.  The ways that we educate – and are educated – experience paradigm shifts.  And if we don’t evolve and change alongside, we are quickly left behind.

But I don’t need to explain this to all of the school technologists out there.  They’ve been experiencing it for years, and they’re doing amazing things with it. Distance learning, electronic textbooks and BYOD, interactive learning and assessment resources – things that were a mere pipe dream fifteen years ago are now commonplace in our schools. This technological evolution shows no signs of slowing, which is why it is critical that our technology support structures – digital literacy, online safety and security, and funding – must be updated and refined to keep pace.

Take the federal E-rate program, for example. Established in 1997, the program provides funding to K-12 schools in the form of discounts on the purchase of connectivity services and communications infrastructure. And it has been a clear success:  since the first funding year in 1998, the program has disbursed over $25 billion to schools across the country.

In 2012, E-rate funds were requested by schools which serve over 52.2 million students, an estimated 95 percent of the total U.S. K-12 student population. Incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse are low, and although the application process can be a bit burdensome at times, the program’s impact on schools’ ability to effectively utilize emerging technologies has been undeniable.

One of the program’s primary goals is to ensure that schools have robust, high-speed connections to the Internet, a goal which is being realized day in and day out by a large majority of our schools.  But you don’t have to be a nerd – or a technologist – to recognize a couple of central truths:  the level of connectivity we require to work, educate, and play is not decreasing, and neither are the costs of acquiring those services.  The trouble is that although the demand for services has risen significantly, the amount of funding available in the E-rate program has remained largely static, increasing only slightly over the program’s history: E-rate funding since 1998





If current trends continue (demand is already almost double the amount of available funding), we could very well face a situation where the E-rate is no longer sufficient to provide funding for even the most basic connectivity services for all schools, resulting in a drastic reduction in the number of students served by this critical funding resource.

Not surprisingly, this harsh reality is starting to attract a lot of attention. On March 12, 2013, Senator Senator John D. Rockefeller IV from West Virginia called for an increase in the amount of funding available for the E-rate program.  Together with regulatory reform, Senator Rockefeller explains that it is time to create “E-rate 2.0.”  And we couldn’t agree more.

An update – an evolution of the E-rate program makes perfect sense.  It can mirror the progression of technology we have observed since 1996.  An updated program structure can be more relevant, more consistent with the way that our schools operate and educate.  It can more accurately reflect the current state of technology usage in our schools, while still providing the stable, consistent stream of connectivity and infrastructure funding our schools have come to rely upon.

At Funds For Learning, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about this very issue.  We have analyzed demand trends, surveyed E-rate applicants to find out what aspects of the program are most important to them, and considered how E-rate reforms made today might provide a solid foundation for technologies that many anticipate will be widely used in the future.  You can find more information about our plan here, but in a nutshell, it calls for a few fundamental changes to the program:

1.  Increase the size of the E-rate fund to match today’s need.  In 1996, the FCC had no choice but to guess at how much E-rate funding  schools and libraries would need. Today, we know. Last year the demand for E-rate funding was $5.2 billion.

2.  Restructure the program to provide funding to connect students, not buildingsMiami-Dade County Public Schools has described this aspect of our plan like this:

“In summary, the FFL plan would enable the Commission to allow applicants to set their own E-Rate budget priorities, thus providing the flexibility and predictability they need to make intelligent planning and purchasing decisions, as outlined in their Technology Plans. M-DCPS strongly believes that implementation of these simple adjustments to the E-Rate program would ensure that local needs be the only driving force behind ERate procurements. This practice led to the E-Rate Program’s early success and is even more integral to its sustainability today.”

Even better, the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to carry out these changes right now, without need of lengthy or expensive Congressional intervention.

I think we can all agree that our students should not be using desktop computers or software from 1996 (except, of course, for our budding technologists who are developing an appreciation of technological nostalgia at an early age.)  In order to properly carry them on to the next generation, however, our funding and support programs must continue to adapt and evolve.

Brian Stephens is Senior Technology and Regulatory Analyst at Funds For Learning, an e-rate compliance firm that guides schools and libraries through the e-rate funding process. Write to: brian@fundsforlearning.com

  • Harry Keller


    How about requiring schools receiving e-rate funds to keep their libraries open for students to use these communication facilities after normal school hours? This expensive resource is being wasted when school is not in session. Such an action would help to bridge a digital divide that shows no sign of going away.

  • joebeckmann


    Why is E-Rate not funded by the providers rather than by a tax on users? Why not tax cable operators who were funded in the 1990’s to create fiber optic networks, and chose to promote DSL instead? How does E-Rate service differ when Verizon FIOS red-lines communities for their mandated contributions to “community access cable stations”? And why are there no studies of communities that have PUBLIC universal access, to contrast the actual value of universal vs. paid access services? If our response to E-Rate EVOLUTION is the issue, why do you ONLY focus on E-Rate funding rather than these, probably more significant, ancillary impacts that now, fifteen years later, ought to be producing useful contrasts? Are you “reporting” or just “promoting”?

    • Harry Keller

      Great question. Why indeed? Seems a reasonable payback for the breaks these companies receive.

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