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Survey Shows Split Among E-Rate Applicants

Applicants to E-Rate, the federal funding program that subsidizes school and library Internet-related purchases, are torn over whether the program should continue to fund internal maintenance and network infrastructure projects, according to a new survey results released by E-Rate consultants Funds for Learning.

The report, released last week, also found that a hefty majority of applicants felt the continuing shift to digital content and the use of student-owned computing devices would put an increasing demand on the Federal Communications Commission program, which is currently funded at $2.3 billion annually through revenues from the Universal Service Fund.

The survey of more than 600 E-Rate applicants found that respondents were split nearly in half on whether the program should continue to fund Priority 2, infrastructure-related projects at schools with the neediest student populations, or focus on Priority 1 initiatives that help support projects at all schools to acquire or strengthen outside Internet connections.

The question is but one data point in an avalanche of information in the report that has about 20 pages of direct survey information and analysis, and 40 pages of appendices. But the division, 52 to 48 percent in favor of doing away with Priority 2 funding, may show a growing tension over the program's overall future, which at its current funding level may not be able even to honor all Priority 1 funding requests in coming years.

About two-thirds of applicants that receive Priority 2 funding favored continuing it, as did one third of applicants who only currently receive Priority 1 funding.

"It stands to reason that applicants who currently receive P2 funding rely on it and would not choose to eliminate it," reads analysis from the report. "What is perhaps more surprising is that one-third of applicants who do not currently receive P2 funding still support it."

Meanwhile, 88 percent of respondents said a shift toward using more digital content in schools and allowing students to consume that content using their own devices would increase their schools' demand for E-Rate funded projects. That shift, perhaps ironically, has been driven in many districts by a desire to limit district spending, and is now also picking up steam with the adoption of the common standards and their provisions for online testing and digital content use.

Perhaps less surprisingly, 94 percent of respondents labeled the program as "critical" to the district's success, about two-thirds said it needed to continue and receive more funding, and four in nine respondents said they are using or have plans to use E-Rate funding to extend use of technology resources to students or community members after school hours.

In addition to a lead section on the importance of E-Rate, the report also includes sections on: the relative importance of speed, flexibility, amount, and predictability of the fulfillment of E-Rate funding requests; respondents' own future technology purchasing plans; recommendations for potential changes to E-Rate; and how to prioritize E-Rate funding across different services.

Respondents to the survey, or at least the 434 who identified their school affiliation, skewed slightly toward larger school districts than the total number of E-Rate applicants, were slightly more likely to have received P2 funding, and were far less likely to utilize a consultant for their E-Rate application, according to the report.

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