The federal E-rate program must be revamped in order to meet the needs of today's digital learners, said Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on the last day of the ISTE 2013 conference.
Rosenworcel echoed the comments she's made at other ed-tech events over the past few months, calling for "E-rate 2.0." The E-rate program was created in 1996 to provide financial support for schools to connect to the Internet and largely succeeded in that goal, she said. But "great programs do not thrive without continuous reassessment and support," she told a crowded session of school administrators.
As it is, the E-rate program receives requests for more than double the amount of the its current funding levels—capped 15 years ago at $2.3 billion annually. To move schools into the 21st century and increase the amount of bandwidth necessary to use online tools in class, that funding level must be raised, said Rosenworcel. "Our students are going to fall short," she said. "They will be unable to realize the potential of digital learning, and that's a serious problem."
Building on President Barack Obama's remarks in Moorseville, N.C. earlier this month, where he too called for an overhaul of the federal E-rate program and unveiled his ConnectED initiative, Rosenworcel reiterated her goal of providing at least 100 megabits per 1,000 students to every school by the 2015-16 school year, and increasing the bandwidth to 1 gigabit per 1,000 students by the 2020-21 school year.
One proposal that drew a round of applause from the audience was Rosenworcel's suggestion to simplify E-rate applications, the complexity of which she said has deterred smaller districts and rural schools from applying for E-rate funding.
Although she did not provide many concrete details in terms of where the extra funding would come from, when schools can expect to see changes, or, specifically, what those changes may entail, she did encourage the audience to send in stories about how their schools have been affected by an out-of-date E-rate program. "There's nothing more powerful than hearing from folks who are on the front lines," she said. "I want to be able to point to lots of letters from people like you. ... It's important to show that people outside of Washington care deeply and are paying attention."
And while many challenges remain for an overhaul of the program, Rosenworcel told the audience she is optimistic about the future of the E-rate program. "[U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan is all in in bolstering E-rate," she said. "That kind of support from the top feels new and novel, so I am an optimist."