As schools begin to break for summer, lawmakers and lobbyists are turning up the heat on the Federal Communication Commission, which has promised to revamp its E-Rate system before the start of the next school year.
On Monday, the New Democrat Coalition sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, outlining its priorities for a new set of rule changes that are expected in the coming months. Congress established the E-rate in 1996 to provide schools and libraries with funding for discounts on telecommunications services, and the FCC oversees it. The group of 46 members of Congress who signed on to the letter included two Republicans, Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Chris Gibson of New York.
"Closing the education and access gap starts with extending digital opportunities across America to all of our students," the bipartisan group of House members wrote. "This requires ensuring that our schools and libraries can take advantage of new technologies and high-quality educational content. However, many of our schools do not have the Internet speed needed to take advantage of digital learning opportunities."
The FCC launched an effort to refashion the E-Rate program back in August of 2013, after years of clamoring from critics who said the program is underfunded and badly antiquated.
The letter outlines five specific priorities, some of which Wheeler already has signaled he supports:
- Focus E-Rate funding on broadband services, wireless capabilities and infrastructure, with continued support for connectivity services;
- Ensure schools and libraries are paying for the best service at the lowest price through competitive Internet service offerings and purchaser coordination;
- Increase transparency and accountability in order to reduce costs and share data for best practices;
- Stabilize funding for E-Rate and improve the program's efficiency and schools' financial planning, and
- Simplify and streamline the application process.
In a speech in March to the Council of Chief State School Officers, Wheeler emphasized his plans to phase out E-rate funding for outmoded services and pledged to create a more equitable system for helping rural schools. The non-profit Universal Service Administrative Company administers the E-rate, which has a $2.4 billion yearly budget, about 80 percent of which is funneled to urban school districts.
The New Democrat Coalition is also working with a slew of stakeholders, including National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Rural Broadband Association, and the Information Technology Industry Council, to ensure that the forthcoming changes significantly improve the system.
The letter to the FCC is the first step in a broader effort by the coalition to improve Americans' digital literacy skills to help ensure that the U.S. workforce remains competitive. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessed the proficiency of those 16 years of age and older in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments, and found that 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. rank last among OECD countries surveyed in terms of their ability to solve problems using technology.