A Time for Action

Welcome to the new world of E-rate.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Harrington

CREDIT Digital Learning Day Alliance for Excellent EducationThis year’s Digital Learning Day marked a significant announcement from the FCC about coming changes to the E-rate program. Chairman Thomas Wheeler outlined the current issues with the program, and addressed what steps the FCC plans to take to resolve them, saying the Commission will “…move forward with fundamental structural and administrative changes by issuing an Order later this spring, the results of which would go into effect in 2015.”

The FCC announced it will increase E-rate support for broadband networks by $2 billion over the next two years. The FCC stated “funding for new investments in high-speed Internet will come from reprioritizing existing E-rate funds to focus on high-capacity Internet connectivity, increasing efficiency, and modernizing management of the E-rate program…”

Modernization is one of the program’s most pressing concerns. It currently exists under the same guidelines and principles it did when it first was initiated by President Clinton in 1996.

The E-rate program was established so schools and libraries can procure the funding necessary to secure proper broadband Internet access. It is intended to help level the playing field and bridge the digital divide. There exists a gap between affluent schools and those in poorer or rural areas. Students at advantaged schools are reaping the benefits of having easy access to the Internet, while students at other schools are struggling to succeed. The Internet is a necessity in any learning environment, putting any school or student with insufficient access at an immediate disadvantage.

The E-rate program’s original goal was to connect students and library patrons to high-speed communications networks. Schools and libraries serving communities with higher economic need were intended to receive the most support. The program was designed as a technology-neutral, solutions-driven program, which did not play favorites with the technologies or vendors chosen. But the program has bogged down with outdated rules and regulations. Today, the needs of wealthier applicants take precedent over poorer schools; and services from telecommunications and Internet access companies receive preferential treatment over relatively less expensive on-campus Wi-Fi networks.

It was these very types of issues that Chairman Wheeler acknowledged during his speech, announcing that the FCC has initiated and is currently conducting a top-to-bottom review of the E-rate program’s administration. In addition, the FCC is taking immediate steps to release hundreds of millions of dollars that are currently held due to accounting requirements, but could be put to use, as soon as FY2014.

Chairman Wheeler and the FCC are committed to helping President Obama achieve his goal of connecting 99 percent of the schools to high-speed Internet in the next five years. The Commission is looking to complete the entire rulemaking by the time students return to schools in the fall.

Chairman Wheeler’s commitment to bringing high-speed connectivity to every school and library is encouraging. Ubiquitous broadband Internet access for students and library patrons is a national priority – and one that is readily achievable via the existing E-rate funding program.

Unfortunately, as of today, our nation’s schools and libraries lag behind in the types of connectivity that they need, particularly in classrooms. To quote the Chairman, this is “a crisis that undermines our nation’s future.”

The responsibility to serve and support our library patrons and students falls on all Americans. A modernized E-rate program will dramatically impact every community in America. Because it’s not just schools and students that will benefit from better access to the resources provided by being connected to high-speed Internet. Libraries across the country that offer free access to anyone who walks through its doors are, as Chairman Wheeler points out, able to use the Internet to search for jobs and continue their learning.

The time for action is now. Chairman Wheeler has laid out a pragmatic course that will provide both immediate and long-term improvements to the E-rate funding program.

John Harrington is the CEO of Funds For Learning.

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