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E-Rate Requests for High-Speed Internet Connections Keep Growing

FY16 Erate Applicants.jpgThe country's schools and libraries continue to thirst for more bandwidth, according to a new analysis of 2016 applications to the federal E-rate program by Oklahoma-based consulting group Funds for Learning.

Two big figures from the group's new report jump out: Requests for subsidies to help pay for high-speed, 1 Gigabit-per-second-or-faster Internet connections have more than doubled since last year. And 90 percent of applicants to the program expect their bandwidth needs will increase over the next three years, with nearly one-fourth saying it will at least double.

"It's clear that schools and libraries are jumping on the broadband train," said Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington. 

The group will present its full findings of its new "2016 E-Rate Trends Report" to the Federal Communications Commission today. The study is based on analysis of publicly available application data through September 2, 2016.

Originally created in 1996, the E-rate program has paid out over $30 billion to help schools and libraries cover the cost of telecommunications services. Two years ago, the FCC overhauled the program, raising its annual spending cap to $3.9 billion, prioritizing support for broadband and Wi-Fi networks over older technologies, and mandating better public reporting of price and service information, among other changes.

Although some researchers have begun to question whether big investments in school broadband infrastructure yields student achievement gains, a wide swath of school, technology, and civil-rights groups have cheered the reforms.

In 2015, during the first E-rate cycle after the changes took place, the program saw a huge jump in demand for internal wireless connectivity, as well as a greater proportion of applicants receiving such support.  For many districts, the tradeoff was decreased support for telephone and voice services.

This year, there was a huge focus on faster connections, Funds for Learning found. More than 24,000 applicants sought a total of $2.3 billion for data and Internet service, with the greatest number of requests coming for 1Gbps or faster connections. While the demand for wireless network equipment (such as routers and switches) continued, many applicants responded to Funds for Learning's survey by saying that the current price cap of $150 per student (implemented to ensure that more applicants get some money) is not enough to allow them to fully meet their needs.

Declining E-rate support for voice services also remains a concern.

"The FCC is the only one that wants voice discounts to fade away," Harrington said.  "It is by far the one service that everyone wants back in the program."

Also of interest: 12 percent of applicants took advantage of the new E-rate's "self-provisioning" option, through which schools and libraries can request federal support to build their own broadband networks, if they can't find an affordable option on the private market. In Funds for Learning's survey, half of those who did so reported that doing so had led to lower prices.

As part of its 2014 overhaul of the E-rate, the FCC decided to allow self-provisioning, despite many objections from the telecom industry. Last year, Education Week chronicled the story of the public school district in Calhoun County, Miss., which took advantage of the new rule to finally win its years-long fight to break out of a deal in which it was billed $9,275 a month for Internet service so slow teachers couldn't even use their computers to take attendance.

"Applicants are open to [self-provisioning], but no one is rushing in yet," Harrington said. "Forty-three percent say they don't want the headache of managing their own network."

Map of 2016 E-rate applicants by Funds for Learning. 


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