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E-Rate Shouldn't Have To Go It Alone in Pursuit of 99% Connectivity

Note: Taryn Hochleitner, a research associate at AEI, is guest posting this week.

This week, I've looked at an important effort to increase our schools' capacity for digital learning: E-Rate reform. A modernized E-Rate won't be complete without the FCC providing for proper accountability and oversight. While we should hold the program accountable for the dollars it distributes, has the President set our expectations for a new E-Rate too high?

There's been widespread support for Obama's proposal to connect 99% of schools and libraries to high-speed Internet within five years. The president called on the FCC to "modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program...to deliver this connectivity." This is an unmistakable call to action for E-Rate to reach the 99% promise. But tasking this program as the sole vehicle to deliver on such a tall order is placing a hefty, perhaps unmanageable, burden on the federal discount program. Indeed, asking E-Rate to go it alone seems to assume that the only hurdle to high-speed connectivity is cost of services.

Is this true? In 2010, the FCC and the Wireline Competition Bureau published a survey of over 1,000 E-Rate recipients about their program and broadband usage. Thirty-nine percent of respondents identified cost of services as a significant barrier to obtaining or using adequate Internet access, while 27 percent cited the cost of installation. These numbers demonstrate a clear financial need that increasing access to E-Rate funds would help to fulfill.

But 45% of respondents faced barriers unrelated to cost of services: 15% cited physical structure or building layout as a barrier, 15% indicated broadband was simply not available, 10% marked a lack of training or technical support, and 5% experienced frequent outages and downtime.

There are other factors preventing schools and libraries from being able to get or use the Internet service they need beyond that which can be fulfilled by an E-Rate discount, a purely financial fix limited by a funding cap and designated contracted services. The Obama administration and others who support the 99% goal should pursue other complementary actions to reach that promise.

For example, some geographic areas, particularly rural ones, lack access to sufficient broadband. In a 2013 survey of 447 school district leaders, the Consortium for School Networking found that 20% of respondents identified geography as a barrier to increasing connectivity in their schools; 11% said that their Internet providers "were either at capacity or could not expand capacity." Obama's ConnectED initiative prioritizes "leveling the playing field" for rural communities that have difficulty attracting broadband investment. E-Rate has a role to play here, but this is an area that some have suggested could also be supported through revisions to another Universal Service program the FCC oversees: High Cost. It's worth asking what other relevant policy levers or public/private partnerships can be leveraged to get broadband to the communities that need them?

Expertise is another major hurdle. Getting students the right services requires assessing need, proper installation, and ongoing troubleshooting support. The FCC survey found evidence to suggest that many non-IT professionals make decisions regarding purchase of broadband, and have trouble determining the proper bandwidth to purchase. Education Superhighway has raised concern about this "expertise gap," writing, "Unfortunately, network implementation and management are specialized skills that most school districts do not have the scale to afford." Superhighway estimates that 90% of school districts don't have access to the education professionals they need. Finding ways to attract top-notch tech talent to our schools and libraries and providing leaders with the information they need to make more informed purchasing decisions will help combat this expertise obstacle.

E-Rate modernization and achieving the 99% promise are both important and noble aims to provide the technical capacity essential for digital learning in our schools. But the ultimate success of E-Rate reform should be judged on the worthy goals the Commission has proposed, not on whether it got us to 99%. Let's be honest about what E-Rate can and cannot do. And then, while the FCC is hard at work on the rulemaking process, supporters should pursue parallel aims to make the most promising effort to get 99% of students connected.

Thanks to Rick for the opportunity, it was a fun ride after all. Next week we're back to your regularly scheduled programming.

--Taryn Hochleitner

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