The initial deadline for public comment on the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to overhaul the federal E-rate program recently passed, and roughly 800 educators, libraries, advocates, representatives from the telecommunications industry, and others have weighed in.
A database of all the comments is available here.
In June, President Obama announced a new plan, dubbed "ConnectEd," to dramatically overhaul the E-rate, through which schools and libraries can apply for federally sponsored discounts to purchase communications services, including Internet access. Many have contended that for years that the program, started in 1996, is antiquated and underfunded, and the President said his goal was to raise "billions" of dollars for the program, primarily through a temporary $5 annual fee on all Americans' phone bills.
The FCC, which oversees the E-rate program, issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in August and has been accepting public feedback since.
A scan of the comments filed with the commission, as well as statements from some of the heavy-hitters who have been pushing for E-rate changes, shows some broad areas of consensus, especially around the need to increase flexibility for local decision-making and streamline the program's onerous application process.
But on the big question, about increasing funding, there appears to be a defined split.
For example, Funds for Learning, a company that helps schools and libraries apply for E-rate funds, called for increasing federal spending on the E-rate program to $4.5 billion per year, nearly double its current funding level of about $2.4 billiion. "School budgets are tight, and their computer networks are lagging. The available E-rate funding for schools has increased 5 percent since 1998. During that same time, schools have increased their Internet access and telecommunications services by 321 percent," the group wrote in a release.
Perhaps not surprisingly, though, at least one major telecommunications company, which could see its bottom line affected if the President's plan to add a $5 fee to all Americans' phone bills to generate the extra revenue goes through, took a different tack. "The Commission should distribute funding more efficiently within the existing E-rate fund," suggested Verizon in its filing with the FCC.
Here's a sampling of comments from some key stakeholders:
- Educator Tiffany American Horse from Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma wrote that her district's "network is barely keeping up with demand, and the need for a reliable high-speed network is only going to increase in the near future."
- The State Educational Technology Directors Association called for funding that is "specific, predictable, and sufficient."
- The Software & Information Industry Association called for a move from "basic" to "robust" student connectivity, "focusing on advanced Internet bandwidth to the point of use (i.e., student and device) and not simply to the school building."
- The Telecommunications Industry Association echoed the recent comments of Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the FCC, in calling for schools to partially match any federal E-rate funding they receive as a means of containing costs and enhancing accountability.
- The Kansas City Public Library supported calls for "adoption of per-applicant funding limits and the elimination of the existing priority system" as the "best way to equitable distribute E-rate funds."
- And a powerhouse coalition including Digital Learning Now!, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and others called on the FCC to recognize that "the foundation of digital learning is flexibility and individualization, not one-size-fits-all answers."
That group also issues a measured message on the funding question, calling on the commission to support increased connectivity "in a manner that encourages programmatic fiscal discipline; limits waste, fraud, and abuse; and is respectful on the impact on the monthly phone bills of all Americans."
So what happens next?
While the FCC reviews the thousands of pages of comments it already has, a second stage for feedback, in which the public can submit additional comments and responses to the filings of others, will extend until October 19. No date has yet been set for the commission to draft and vote on its final rules.