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FCC Approves E-Rate Changes

Schools will have the option to use E-rate funding to extend Internet access to their communities after hours, seek out "dark fiber" Internet connections, and vie for funds to support mobile learning initiatives, according to changes to the program approved Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission.

The measure also included indexing the program's $2.25 billion annual funding cap for inflation, the first change to the cap since the program—which provides schools and libraries with discounted Internet access—was founded by Congress in 1997.

A separate measure passed Thursday that frees vacant airwaves between TV channels, or "white spaces," to host technologies like "super Wi-Fi" could also affect schools, particularly in rural regions.

The mobile learning provision may be of the most interesting to school technology directors, who are increasingly exploring ways to weave mobile learning into their school programs. Currently, technology directors may only purchase mobile devices through the program if the mobile devices remain on campus. The revision creates a pilot program that may offer select programs funding to support the use of school-issued mobile devices after school hours, provided those programs applying for the funding can prove the devices will lead to increased achievement.

"There are issues to address as we move forward," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "But starting with a pilot program that will encourage schools to compete for funding to develop programs that work ... is exactly what we should do in an environment where mobile connectivity is becoming so important." More details on the pilot program were expected Friday.

The policy revisions also include increasing the options for E-rate funded Internet connections to include unused, already-existing "dark" fiber networks, which the commission previously removed from the program's Eligible Services List in 2003. And they allow schools the ability to use E-rate funding to create "school spots" where schools could provide Internet access to the local community after school hours, something strongly recommended in the National Broadband Plan released in March.

The freeing of white spaces could make such school spots increasingly powerful. Super Wi-Fi transmitted via white spaces could cover an area 16 times as large as that covered by a current Wi-Fi signal.

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