The Federal Communications Commission is asking for more public input on restructuring the E-rate, with a focus on devoting more money for internal Web connections within schools and potentially using demonstration projects to encourage innovation in the $2 billion-plus program.
In a public notice released Thursday, the FCC said its ongoing review of the E-rate shows that the program needs to "quickly evolve," but that the agency is soliciting comments on a number of key points, with a due date of April 21.
The notice drew criticism from some quarters, including sharp objections from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
The notice follows up a broader blueprint put forward by the FCC last year for rebuilding the program, which provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications services. That notice drew more than 1,500 comments. Since then, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has pledged that the agency will take a series of steps to reboot the E-rate, including shifting existing money to pay for an additional $2 billion over two years for school and library broadband upgrades.
But the new notice says the FCC wants more direction on a number of specific points: what steps it can take to devote more money to high-speed broadband, especially wireless and internal connections; whether it should phase out support for "voice" services in order to carve out more for broadband; and whether test projects or experiments could help the FCC test new ways to make the program more cost-effective.
The NEA, however, worries that in searching for ways to provide schools with better broadband, the commission could end up weakening its commitment to focusing on providing the most E-rate funding to the most impoverished communities. Mary Kusler, the NEA's director of government relations, pointed to language throughout the notice, including a section in which the FCC asked whether it should "prioritize funding for applicants within a discount level by giving preference to the applicants with the highest percentage of students receiving free and reduced school lunches?"
Kusler said in an interview that the union fears that language could signal an intention to "walk away from using poverty a way of of judging applications."
In a statement on the FCC's blog, Julie Veach, the chief of the agency's wireline competition bureau, noted that funding for external Internet connection—such as from an outside source to a district—dominate E-rate funding, leaving little left over for the internal classroom and library connectivity, categorized as "priority two" requests under the program.
In the 2013 funding year, the imbalance was so bad that there were no funds left over for priority two requests, Veach noted.
"The record illustrates a clear consensus that delivering 21st century broadband to schools and libraries requires an emphasis not just on broadband connectivity to buildings but also on the internal networking equipment that delivers that broadband to every student and library patron device," Veach wrote,
"The proliferation of Wi-Fi-enabled devices in schools and libraries means that 'priority two' internal connections are every bit as important as connectivity to the building."
While she called the new notice "an important mile marker on the road to E-rate modernization," Veach said it didn't represent the full range of issues the agency would address in a future order making changes to the program.
Union to Make Its Case
The FCC official also said the agency is seeking opinions on how and whether to set up a "one-time deployment initiative" to provide targeted money for schools and libraries that lack access to high-speed broadband connections.
The NEA sees that level of help as insufficient, Kusler said. While the union understands the FCC's interest in promoting internal connectivity, there are many rural schools that need basic, reliable "external" connections to their districts, and the agency's notice would do little to help them, the union official said.
"We would love for priority two to be funded, but not at the expense of priority one," Kusler said. "There are large swaths of the country [lacking sound external connections.] What are we doing to help those areas?"
The union will submit comments to the FCC making its objections clear—and urge its 3 million members to do the same, she said.
Doug Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said in a statement that the FCC is "clearly signaling" that it sees broadband needs as a priority, and that's a good thing. Also encouraging, he said, is its potential support for demonstration projects as a way of encouraging improvement and experimentation in a program where "technology changes faster than federal program regulations."
But Levin also said the notice could have emphasized the need for simplifying the program, and stating its "metrics of success" for an improved how the program functions.
"The looseness in goals and metrics only complicates the sort of tradeoffs they are seeking to evaluate," Levin said.
The notice drew criticism from one Republican member of the FCC, Ajit Pai, who has argued that the agency should do more to look for wasteful spending within the E-rate program. Pai, in a statement, said the FCC should focus on "eliminating [a] priority system that arbitrarily favors some technologies over others," but instead is pursuing a strategy that "doubles down on it."
While the notice suggests changes that would streamline the funding process, it does not do enough to help small, rural schools and libraries that are not treated fairly by the program, Pai added.
John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla.-based company that consults schools on the E-rate, argued that one of the most noteworthy aspects of the notice is what it does not offer: a plan for signficantly boosting the overall size of the E-rate program. Many of those active in the school-technology community have called for doubling the program's yearly funding, to about $5 billion, but the FCC "does not seem interested in increasing the E-rate funding cap at this time," Harrington said in an e-mail.
"It is unfortunate, to say the least," Harrington said, noting that the program's funding has remained flat for years. "But we are hopeful that the Commission will either (A) change course now—it has the authority to do that, or (B) early next year increase the cap."
Harrington also said it remains unclear how much money the FCC can set aside for improved wireless technology in schools and libraries, and how they would structure those changes. In addition, he questioned the phasing out of support of legacy, voice services through the E-rate, which he described as "critical in classrooms," especially if there is not a sound plan to replace those systems.
This post has been updated with comments from Pai, Harrington, and Kusler.