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FCC Chairman Vows to Build a Better E-Rate Program

UPDATED

The head of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday pledged to clear aside bureaucratic clutter and make it easier for schools and libraries to secure E-rate funding for the most useful technologies—while also saying the agency will wait before considering a major infusion of new money for the program.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, speaking at an event held in Washington for national Digital Learning Day, reiterated plans put forward earlier this week to double the amount the agency provides to schools and libraries for high-speed broadband, a $2 billion increase over two years.

Wheeler also said the FCC will take a number of immediate steps to improve the E-rate that would apply to funding applications rolling in now. Those steps include:

  • Ensuring that applications that give "the most students the most broadband" are reviewed quickly, without favoring those from large urban areas;
  • Rewarding, rather than penalizing, applications from consortia and joint applicants, which Wheeler described as promoting cost-effective uses of money; and
  • Reducing the logjam of requests from old E-rate applications, and others that have been on hold or under appeal.

Wheeler estimated that roughly 70 percent of schools today lack the Internet speed they need. In his speech, he described those shortcomings in stark terms—offering stories about students at one school who have to hold their tablets above their heads until they secure a Wi Fi signal; students having to be transported to another school with better connectivity to take online tests; and a school having its network crash if too many students push "enter" on their keyboards at the same time.

Those failings amount to "a crisis that undermines America's future," Wheeler argued.

Schools' and libraries' needs have surged with the growth of tablets, the availability of wirelss technology, and educators' and students' use of complex, data-heavy content, the FCC official noted.

Last year, Obama administration officials left open the possibility that they would support expanding E-rate funding by urging the FCC to increase fees on telecommunications providers, charges that typically end up getting passed on to consumers. (Obama appoints the commission's five members. No more than three members can belong to any one political party.) Many technology advocates have argued that the E-rate program, which has a $2.4 billion budget, needs a dramatic increase in its funding—perhaps a doubling of available money.

Wheeler did not rule out increasing the overall size of the program in the future, but said the FCC will initially focus on finding money for schools' and libraries' needs by using savings and the shifting of money within exsiting programs.

"[T]he biggest immediate opportunities are unlocked by first looking carefully at how to do better with what you already have," Wheeler said. "Should it be necessary to increase the permanent funding levels for the E-Rate program, we will do what is appropriate. Prudently, however, any program funding change must be preceded by an assessment of the use of current funds, along with a fact-based analysis of the needs of the program to meet the goals to which we all ascribe."

Wheeler said the FCC would issue an order later this spring, to take effect in 2015, to restructure the program in ways that improve schools' and libraries' high-speed connections.

As a next step, he added, the FCC will soon release a public notice asking for comment on a range of issues. Wheeler would not go into details on that notice, but said it would focus on making broadband a priority, and phasing out low-bandwidth connections. The goal is to have that process complete before students begin school in the fall.

The FCC chairman said that while much of the attention given to the E-rate focuses on schools, he also touted its benefits to libraries, which he described as also having major needs.

It's now routine for teachers to assign lessons requiring students to work over the Web. Yet for students who lack reliable Internet access at home, libraries are "the only link that they have to the net outside of school," Wheeler said.

The focus on libraries pleased former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, a lawyer who represents a coalition of urban libraries. Hundt, who was appointed chairman by President Bill Clinton, said in an interview that Wheeler's plans set the stage for a "network, architectural transformation" of those institutions.

For libraries, the FCC plans mean "a big upgrade, and a big increase in scale," Hundt said, while also recognizing the "critical role of connected libraries."

More Money Needed?

Hundt said he shares the views of those calling for a substantial boost in overall E-rate funding, to meet demand. But he said Wheeler's decision to focus on savings and making fixes to the existing program, before pursuing more money, makes sense.

"He's saying there's no point in just talking about the dollars, unless we agree on the goals," Hundt said. Otherwise, he said, the FCC would risk wasting money on technologies and strategies that don't work for schools and libraries.

"Eventually, the program's funding is going to have to increase with the country's population, and its needs," he said.

That sentiment was shared by the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization. While praising Obama and the FCC for putting more money into broadband, the society said in a statement that E-rate funding would have to rise to $5 billion to meet current demands, and that there is "overwhelming support" for increasing the program's overall size.

While the administration's plans for expanding high-speed broadband are "spot-on," said Brian Lewis, CEO of the organization, "[w]e need to make sure it's attainable for all districts and work toward a permanent increase the annual funding cap."

The call for increased funding also came from U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs his chamber's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and has been a longtime backer of the E-rate program on Capitol Hill.

"While I welcome Chairman Wheeler's announcement today of an important down payment for our students' future, I strongly believe any update of E-Rate also must devote additional long-term support to the program," the senator said in a statement. "The case for increasing E-Rate support already has been made. For more than a decade, demand for E-Rate support by our Nation's schools and libraries has outstripped supply by two-to-one."

Wheeler's remarks come a day after the Obama administration announced that some of the nation's largest telecommunications and technology companies would commit to provide free products and services, worth a combined $750 million, to improve Web connectivity for students and families.

School districts have faced mounting tech demands as some important sources of support have gone away, noted John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now, an advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla. He pointed to the loss of the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant program, which in 2010 provided $100 million for schools' digital efforts but was eliminated the following year.

Bailey, who served as a White House adviser and a director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, said before Wheeler's speech that he hoped the Obama administration would push to restore that grant funding, which he credited with helping schools on many fronts, such as professional development in technology and the implementation of blended learning programs.

But Bailey, speaking before Wheeler's speech, also said the FCC's effort to expand broadband by using funding is a good "first step" that would allow the agency to initially "squeeze as much money as possible, and then have a debate about raising the cap" later—a broader change that could bring more political opposition.

"It's a very challenging environment to have budget conversations and fiscal conversations," Bailey said. That said, "if you have limited dollars, you want to be getting the biggest bang for the buck—and that's in broadband."

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