Democrats Call for E-Rate Reforms To Expand Broadband Internet Access

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Nov. 5 --Democratic policy makers said Nov. 5 that more must be done to ensure universal access to high-speed broadband Internet access.

Officials from the White House, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress said during a Nov. 5 event hosted by The Washington Post that it is time to redouble federal programs that make broadband access more affordable and accessible to U.S. citizens.

In June, President Barack Obama announced his ConnectED initiative to connect U.S. schools and libraries with broadband Internet connections of at least 100 Mbps with a target of 1 Gbps within five years. The administration is seeking to overhaul and modernize E-Rate, also known as the schools and libraries universal service support mechanism, which collects small contributions from U.S. telephone consumers in order to subsidize billions of dollars of broadband infrastructure deployment to schools and libraries.

Critics of E-Rate, which was first authorized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, say it should be modernized to account for increased bandwidth demands of video streaming and other online applications.

'Strong Broadband Connectivity.'

E-Rate “had more limited ambition; it was much more about the access, being connected as opposed to having strong broadband connectivity,” said Gene Sperling, the director of the national economic council and assistant to the president for economic policy. “At that point people did not have this vision of the classroom where everyone is learning in an individualized way, where they are using devices that are connected to the Internet,” he said.

According to a recent survey conducted by the FCC, 80 percent of school and library administrators believe their broadband Internet connections simply do not meet their current bandwidth needs. Sperling said bandwidth in the average American school is inadequate for two teachers to stream educational videos for their students at the same time.

$5 Per Year

Sperling acknowledged that expanding broadband access to U.S. schools will cost consumers, but he said the payoff is worth it. Wireless and wireline consumers will pay an increased universal service fee of “less than $5 a year for three years,” Sperling said. “It's a very temporary charge for all of us to provide this huge benefit.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she has heard from E-Rate beneficiaries that the application process is too cumbersome. “We are listening to that,” Clyburn said. “We will do our part to ensure this engagement is more robust, more efficient and serves the needs of the American public.”

The Commission currently has an open proceeding to modernize and expand E-Rate. Clyburn urged stakeholders to submit comments to help policy makers understand the best ways to improve the program. The FCC extended its comment deadline for the E-Rate notice of proposed rulemaking to Nov. 8 as a result of the 16-day federal shutdown in October.

Clyburn Hammers Affordability

Clyburn added that federal policy makers are working to address the high costs of broadband service and the lack of access in rural and remote communities. “There are 100 million Americans who do not subscribe to broadband because of affordability,” she said. “And there are 15 million Americans who do not have the infrastructure for broadband. We are reforming the Universal Service Fund to target those areas.”

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) agreed that broadband affordability is a barrier to U.S. broadband adoption and stumped for her Broadband Adoption Act (H.R. 1685) as a means to get more low-income citizens connected. Introduced in April, H.R. 1685 would require the FCC to expand the Lifeline program from landline and wireless services to help Americans subscribe to most broadband Internet services.

Expand Lifeline Subsidies

“If in fact we want everyone to participate in this economy, have a job and move ahead they really do need to have broadband,” Matsui said. “If we start dividing this country up in a digital manner, I believe we will not remain competitive in this world.”

The Lifeline program currently offers financial discounts for phone service to eligible households and is funded by Universal Service contributions from U.S. telephone customers. Eligible households include those that qualify for social service programs like Medicaid, Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Supplemental Security Income program and the National School Lunch Program, among others.

Matsui acknowledged that the Lifeline program had become a partisan lightning rod in recent years but said opponents will not succeed in derailing its mission. Some lawmakers have criticized Lifeline's increased cost and sought to eliminate the program, which they say is fraught with waste and abuse.

“Most of the detractors in that regard have quieted down,” Matsui said. “For the most part people understand that there might have been some bad actors here and that is what the FCC is dealing with.” The FCC's enforcement bureau recently proposed over $47 million in fines for companies that violated the program's rules and eliminated over 2 million duplicate subscriptions.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com