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Timing of Changes to E-Rate Will Affect Millions of Students, Says FCC Chair

Federal officials' ability, or inability, to approve changes to the E-rate program quickly could determine whether millions of students have access to reliable Wi-Fi technology by the 2015-2016 school year, according to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

In a letter addressed to Congressman Ron Kind, D-Wisc., FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reiterated his plans to rechannel $2 billion in existing E-rate funds to support improved broadband technologies in schools and libraries.

But Wheeler also emphasized that the FCC, which oversees the E-rate, needs to modernize its rules governing the program without delay for that money to have the greatest impact.

Specifically, if the agency were to put an additional $1 billion toward Wi-Fi next year without updating the rules governing the E-rate program, that money would end up providing improved wireless technology to fewer than 4 million students, Wheeler argued, citing an FCC staff analysis.

But if the FCC were to make substantial changes to its policies governing internal technology connections within districts over the next few months, the E-rate could help more than 10 million students benefit from Wi-Fi in classrooms, during the 2015-2016 school year.

"Timing is critical," Wheeler told the lawmakers. "Practically speaking, to have an impact in the 2015 school year, the commission will need to act this summer to adopt new rules. If we don't move quickly on new rules, we will miss the opportunity for Wi-Fi to have its greatest impact in the coming funding year."

(In laying out his timeline, Wheeler was referring to the 2015-2016 school year, the FCC confirmed.) 

Wheeler was responding to a letter from a bipartisan group of lawmakers earlier this month, which called for improving the program's efficiency and application process, and its support for Wi-Fi, among other priorities.

FCC officials are immersed in a major reworking of E-rate policies, designed to modernize the program. As part of that process, the agency has heard from policymakers and advocates from across the country. Last month, a coalition of teachers' unions, libraries, religious groups, and others—claiming to represent more than 130,000 public and private schools—called on federal officials to expand the overall size of the E-rate program, rather than taking a more incremental approach.

Those organizations included not only the nation's two largest teachers' unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—but also the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Catholic Education Association, the American Library Association, and the National Rural Education Association.

The E-rate program supports telecommunications upgrades in schools and libraries, particularly those serving less-privileged populations. The program is currently funded at about $2.4 billion a year, roughly half of what is demanded from applicants, the organizations point out.

"If the commission is serious about ensuring that all schools and libraries have sufficient high-capacity bandwidth—to make use of the digital tools, content, services, and assessments," the groups wrote, "we cannot wait until some indeterminate future date for addtiional E-rate support."

While plans for making changes to the E-rate program have not yet been finalized, Wheeler has publicly said it's important to look for savings within the existing program and improve its operations before seeking to increase its overall size.

"Simply sending more money to the E-rate program to keep doing business as it has been for the last 18 years is not a sustainable strategy," Wheeler said in March.

But in this week's letter to Capitol Hill, Wheeler suggested that questions about the overall pool of available E-rate money will need to be addressed at some point.

Some advocates have called for tying the program's funding to the Consumer Price Index, allowing for increases in the program's size over time, Wheeler noted.

If the E-rate had benefited from a regular adjustment for inflation since the program's inception, its yearly budget would be significantly higher—$3.25 billion, the FCC official said.

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