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FCC Seeks Comment on Access to WiFi for Schools and Libraries

The Federal Communications Commission wants to know whether the E-rate program is providing enough money to schools and libraries for WiFi.

Late last week, the commission's Wireline Competition Bureau issued a notice requesting comments on the so-called "category two" budgets. The notice reads, in part:

"Specifically, we seek comment from applicants, service providers, and other interested parties about how applicants have used their budgets and the percentage of category two services purchased by applicants that were or will be covered by the budget....

In requesting comment, we stress the need for commenters to provide specific, measurable data that the Bureau can use to assist in its analysis. We ask that applicants provide data that shows the category two services they purchased with their budgets and the category two services they purchased without E-rate support. We also seek data and feedback on whether the budgets had varying impacts on E-rate applicants based on differences in geography, rural status, applicant type, or student population. For those applicants that did not use any of their category two budgets, we seek feedback on why they did not seek category two funding. Did those applicants already have adequate internal connections in place in funding year 2015? Do they intend to seek support for category two services before funding year 2020?"

The issue of "category two" funding is a big one for schools. 

In 2013 and 2014, thousands of E-rate applicants requested a total of more than $4.5 billion for the hardware and services needed to support robust internal WiFi networks. But because of intense demand for broadband connections, plus the way the program's funding rules were structured, none of those requests were actually granted.

In 2014, though, the FCC overhauled the E-rate, creating a dedicated pot of billions of dollars to go towards such category-two requests. All schools were made eligible for E-rate discounts amounting to $150 per student over the following five years.

The results have been striking: 88 percent of schools now say they have sufficient classroom access to WiFI, up from just 25 percent in 2013, according to a recent report from the broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.

But a quarter of schools have yet to tap any of the category-two funding they're eligible for. And more than $2 billion in program funds remains unused, EducationSuperHighway found.

There has also been a sharp drop in applicants' demands for category-two discounts, according to Funds for Learning, a E-rate consulting group that works with thousands of schools and libraries around the country. John Harrington, the group's CEO, said that drop has occurred despite the work of wiring schools and libraries being "far from done."

And while the 2014 E-rate modernization order called for the type of review that the FCC is now seeking, many in the K-12 community didn't expect it to happen for another year.

Put it all altogether, and it amounts to another reason for already-jittery school-technology proponents to fret.

"The E-rate Modernization rightly called for examining these issues, but we're surprised by the bureau's decision to press ahead now before allowing the implementation to ripen more," said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. "We hope this decision doesn't presage premature changes to the planned five-year window for schools and libraries to access the category-two funds."

The FCC's comment period opens October 23 and closes November 7.


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