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E-Rate Expert Pens Open Letter to FCC

The chief executive officer of a well-known firm that advises schools on how to comply with the federal E-rate program is asking the Federal Communications Commission to include E-rate funding in a newly created program to drive broadband Internet adoption.

John Harrington writes the open letter less than a month after the FCC voted to create the Connect America Fund as part of an overhaul of the Universal Service Fund and redirect money from rural phone connection projects to broadband Internet efforts. The fund, which like all USF projects is funded through the Universal Service Fee that the FCC collects from telecommunications providers, will provide up to $4.5 billion per year.

Harrington wants the FCC to funnel some of that money to the E-Rate, which currently provides $2.3 billion in annual funding to subsidize schools' and libraries' projects related to Internet connectivity. The program has been funded essentially at the same level since it was introduced in 1997.

"What was barely adequate funding 14 years ago is not nearly sufficient now, and tomorrow it will merely be a drop in the bucket," Harrington writes in the letter, adding that the Connect America Fund "needs a fully funded E-rate program to succeed."

Adds Harrington: "Allocating funds from the Connect America Fund will not require any new taxes, making it the perfect solution to a serious problem at a very difficult time."

E-rate funding is doled out in two tiers. Tier 1 provides funds for basic connectivity projects—i.e. projects that improve a school's or library's external Internet connection. Tier 2 funding, distributed to the highest poverty schools first after all Tier 1 funding is allocated, goes toward internal projects that are E-rate eligible.

In public presentations, Harrington has warned that the E-rate program is becoming so overtaxed with requests that soon it will not even be able to meet all the demand for Tier 1 funding, let alone any Tier 2 applications.

The FCC did take an unprecedented step in September of 2010 to index the E-rate funding cap for inflation. That resulted in a nominal bump from its original $2.25 billion funding level.

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