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E-Rate Funding Insufficient, District Leadership Groups Contend

Dig-Ethernet-Cables.jpgDespite recent changes, the federal E-rate program remains insufficient to help all schools—especially those in rural areas struggling to access affordable, high-speed fiber-optic cable—meet ambitious broadband connectivity goals, according to a new survey released this week.

The report, released by the Consortium for School Networking and the AASA (the School Superintendents Association), professional associations serving school technology and school system leaders, identified "affordability and adequate funding" as the main barriers to meeting President Barack Obama's goal of providing all schools with at least 100 Mbps of connectivity by 2018.

"The E-rate program remains deeply underfunded," said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, in a statement.

Among the survey's findings: 

  • Only 9 percent of the nearly 1,000 district leaders surveyed reported having "adequate bandwidth to fully meet the demand for online assessments and digital content anticipated over the next 18 months."
  • Almost half—45 percent—of districts reported not having enough bandwidth to deploy a 1-to-1 computing initiative in which all students are given digital devices.
  • One-fourth of districts reported that "not a single school in their district" could meet the Federal Communications Commission's short-term goal of 100Mbps of connectivity per 1,000 students.
  • Rural schools face particularly acute challenges, including fewer options and higher prices for connectivity services. More than 30 percent of rural districts received either one or no responses to requests for E-rate services, according to the survey.

"You've got to increase the cap to meet the need," said Keith Krueger, the CEO of Washington-based CoSN, in an interview.

Established in 1996, the E-rate program is administered by the FCC. The commission subsidizes the cost of telecommunications services for schools and libraries by charging fees to telecommunications providers, most of which are passed on to consumers. The E-rate program is currently capped at around $2.4 billion—several billion dollars short of what many advocates say is necessary.

This summer, the FCC revamped the program, prioritizing broadband services and redirecting about $2 billion of existing money to be dedicated specifically to schools' internal wireless networks, which generally had not been supported by E-rate funds in previous years.

Krueger said he supports that "rearranging of priorities," but believes the policy change alone is not enough, especially for the thousands of U.S. schools that so far have been unable to access affordable fiber-optic cable connections, generally regarded as the best way to support high-speed broadband access.

"We're never going to get to the President's vision if we only deal with the 65 percent of schools that already have fast connectivity," Krueger said. "It was a huge problem that the E-rate has not paid for internal connections, and it's good that the FCC is putting resources there now, but it doesn't mitigate the overall bandwidth crisis we have."

The FCC has been accepting public comment on the question of raising the E-rate's cap. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai is among those who have resisted such calls, saying that spending and waste should first be controlled so that existing dollars may be used more wisely.

In the meantime, many schools are struggling to get the connectivity necessary to administer online exams, provide students with access to digital curricula and multimedia, and expand the use of digital devices.

And the recent changes have actually resulted in some new concerns: More than one-half of schools, CoSN/AASA survey found, are worried about the fiscal impact of now having to fund the basic telecommunications services, like phone, that E-rate will no longer support.

"I think there is considerable anguish among tech leaders as they look at their budgets," Krueger said. "If the FCC is serious, they're going to have put some real money into E-rate. Otherwise, it's just moving the deck chairs."

The complete CoSN/AASA survey results are available here.


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