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FCC Proposal to Modernize E-Rate Program Gathers Momentum

The acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission on Friday took initial steps in what is expected to be a broad effort to remake the federal E-rate program and provide schools with faster online connectivity, putting forward a proposal that mirrors goals outlined by President Obama earlier this month.

Mignon L. Clyburn, who was appointed to the FCC by the president, was expected today to provide the two other current members of the panel with a proposal that calls for not only improving technology infracture, but also making changes to the program's purchasing and the administrative oversight, according to a senior commission official.

While any changes to the E-rate would have go through a federal rulemaking and public comment process, Clyburn's initial proposal represents a road map for refashioning the program, the official said.

An overriding goal of Clyburn's proposal—which was not provided to Education Week in written form—is to increase schools' and libraries' access to high-speed Internet access, in keeping with the presidents' goal of giving 99 percent of the country's schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Web access within five years.

Clyburn is also calling for increasing the efficiency of the E-rate and making sure that funds are spent wisely, and improving management of program, which was first established by Congress in 1996 and is funded through telecommunications fees.

Included within Clyburn's proposal are changes meant to simplify the rules on the development of fiberoptic cable lines and the establishment of high-speed wireless connections within districts, including within classrooms, the FCC official said. Her proposal also calls for new options to create incentives for consortia of schools to make purchases within the E-rate program. In addition, it seeks to spark greater competition among bidders to provide E-rate services to schools and libraries.

In an op-ed published Friday in USA Today, Clyburn also called for eliminating government support for outdated services and using E-rate dollars to invest in improvig bandwidth. She also suggested that federal officials must partner with nonprofit and private sector providers to improve schools' tech capacity.

"[W]e need to use this opportunity to bring to the table state and local officials, foundations, network operators, and innovators building the next generation of learning tools and content," she wrote. "We must leverage the ongoing massive private investments in networks and esnure that investments in connectivity are the foundation for real, positive change in classrooms."

The chairwoman's intention is to allow the two other commissioners, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Pai, to review her proposal and make changes to it over the next three weeks. The commission would then vote on the proposal at its meeting on July 19.

After that, the FCC would propose rules and begin a process for collecting public comments, a period that can last a few months. After that, the FCC would publish final rules on changes to the E-rate, the commission official said.

Pai declined to comment on the request, through his office. Rosenworcel has not yet responded to a request for comment. But the Democrat has repeatedly called for making major changes to the E-rate, including boosting schools' technological capabilities, most recently doing so this week in a speech at the International Society for Technology in Education's national conference in San Antonio.

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