Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog:
Federal officials are planning to double support for schools' and libraries' broadband connectivity through the E-rate program, a step that comes amid increasing demands in the education community for faster, more reliable Internet service.
The E-rate program is currently funded at about $2.4 billion annually. The Federal Communications Commission will call for raising the portion of money flowing specifically to high-speed broadband to schools and libraries from $1 billion to $2 billion a year, a federal official told Education Week.
The new money would come through a rechanneling of existing E-rate money rather than through an infusion of new funding, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed federal officials. In a statement released Monday, the FCC said the money will come from reprioritizing funding to "focus on high-capacity Internet connectivity, increasing efficiency, and modernizing management of the E-Rate program."
President Obama last year pressed for deep changes to the E-rate program, including directing money to the kinds of technologies schools need the most, rather than antiquated ones. Specifically, Obama said his goal was to ensure that 99 percent of U.S. schools have access to high-speed broadband technology within five years.
Not long after that, the FCC, which oversees the program, unveiled a broadly worded proposal that reflected many of the president's priorities—calling for trimming waste and streamlining the flow of money to applicants seeking aid.
In describing Obama's proposal last year, administration officials did not offer a definitive price tag for making those changes to the E-rate, which is supported through fees on telecommunications providers and their customers. But back then, White House officials said if fees needed to be raised, it would result in a temporary charge of no more than $5 in annual fees on phone bills.
In his State of the Union Address last week, Obama signaled that a definitive plan for providing schools with more technology support was coming soon. The president also said private corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon would be helping schools improve their technology by making a "down payment" on a plan that would not add "a dime to the deficit."
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday in a television interview that the administration will announce a plan in which private U.S. companies commit more than $500 million to improved school technology, "so that our kids can compete in this economy." The White House later said more details would be announced Tuesday.
According to the Times, the FCC plan would not require any additional taxes or assessments.
The agency said in its statement that the new funding will amount to about $2 billion over the next two years in additional money going to broadband, and that the money would be directed to the most pressing needs of schools and libraries. Only about half of the E-rate funds today are used to support "true high-speed Internet connections," the FCC added.
In addition to the influx of funding, the FCC said it will hasten the application process, increase the program's transparency, help schools and libraries lower the prices they pay for telecommunications services, and boost enforcement and oversight—all of which have been identified as weaknesses in the current program, to some degree.
"As we consider long-term improvements to the program, we will take immediate steps to make existing funds go farther, significantly increasing our investment in high-speed Internet to help connect millions of students to the digital age," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in the agency's statement. "We will take a business-like approach to the management of the program, identifying opportunities to improve the ways funds are deployed and streamlining the process for schools and libraries."
Wheeler is expected to announce more details of the plan this week.
The potential for some measure of increased funding for broadband drew a positive reaction from Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based organization that has called for the federal government to do more to meet schools' rising technology demands.
"It's a critical down payment for our children's future, and can help bring high-speed fiber and Wi-Fi to needy schools and libraries across the country," Marwell said in an e-mail to EdWeek. He said Wheeler has shown he understands "the importance of focusing the E-rate on broadband to improving educational outcomes."
Expect more details on a retooled E-rate, and more reaction from those across the school community, this week.
This post has been updated to include comments from McDonough and the statement issued Monday by the FCC.