Feb. 3 -- The Federal Communications Commission plans to
double its funding for a program that seeks to increase broadband Internet
capacity for U.S. schools and libraries, agency officials said.
Over the next two years, the FCC aims to
restructure the E-Rate program, also known as the schools and libraries
universal service support mechanism, to distribute $2 billion per year to
subsidize greater broadband capacity for U.S. schools and libraries, an agency
spokesman confirmed Feb. 3. The 1996 Telecommunications Act directed U.S.
telecommunications providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund (USF)
in the form of fees that would subsidize the deployment of broadband
infrastructure to American schools and libraries.
The commission plans
to distribute unallocated E-Rate funds for a one-time funding boost and
reprioritize existing E-Rate funds to focus on high-capacity Internet
connectivity, increase efficiency and modernize management of the program, it
said. The FCC also plans to streamline the application process for schools,
increase transparency and strengthen oversight and enforcement within the
program. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to detail his proposed changes to
the program on Feb. 5 at a digital learning day event hosted by the Library of
The effort is scheduled to coincide with President Barack
Obama's ConnectED initiative to provide U.S. schools and libraries with
broadband Internet connections of at least 100 Mbps with a target of 1 GBps
within five years. In his recent State of the Union address, Obama said that
companies like Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Sprint Inc., and Verizon
Communications Inc. will help the FCC connect more than 15,000 schools and 20
million students with next-generation connectivity over the next two years
without increasing the deficit. The president is expected to deliver remarks
related to his ConnectED program on Feb. 4 at the Buck Lodge Middle School in
“We are all talking about
the same thing--infusing our education system at a local level with the
incredible things that the digital age offers,” FCC Commissioner Jessica
Rosenworcel told Bloomberg BNA.
“When the FCC did some surveying, it
found that 80 percent of current schools do not believe that their broadband
meets their needs; they need more capacity,” Rosenworcel said. “We also found
that too many of our schools rely on speeds as low as 3 [megabits per
second]--that is lower than the typical American household but there are
students using it--so imagine there are 200 times as many people using it.”
“If we continue on this pace and stay on this trajectory we will not be able
to bring real digital learning to our schools,” Rosenworcel said. “That means
no high definition streaming video; it means no innovative teaching tools; it
means we will not be able to prepare the next generation for the science and
technology engineering and math skills that are so essential to compete.”
“I am a parent; I have two kids who are in school; I don't think their
experience should be like mine,” Rosenworcel said. “I think the world they are
going to enter and the economy they are going to enter is going to be very
different. So bringing broadband into our schools is an opportunity to get more
innovative content into the hands of students like my children and create
learning opportunities that never existed when I went to school,” she said.
“This is a critical step forward and for the president to champion it is
gratifying,” said Jim Steyer, the chief executive officer of Common Sense Media
and a commissioner of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission.
“If you don't put the fundamental infrastructure in place all the incredibly
innovative stuff being built in Silicon Valley, none of it can be used by a 5th
grader in rural North Carolina,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
Increased funding for broadband connectivity to schools would
be “a gift in rural America,” said Clark Godshall, the district superintendent
for the Orleans/Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services, an
educational service agency based in New York. “Without it, we'll do the old
'chalk and talk' and those days are gone because it's not working anymore,” he
told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.
Broadband-enabled learning tools
could help school districts with tight budgets offer their students advanced
placement classes through online college partnerships, Godshall said. “If you
can do it online there is a heck of a cost savings and much more opportunities
for rural America if you have that capability to tap into those other
instructional opportunities,” he said.
Further expanding the E-Rate
program may require the FCC to make some hard decisions about potentially
increasing the program's cap and seeking higher contribution rates from
telecommunications companies and their subscribers, Rosenworcel said. E-rate
program funding is currently capped at $2.3 billion per year.
E-Rate program has “demand that is twice the available supply of dollars we
have, year in and year out,” Rosenworcel said. “I think we need to have a
frank conversation about spending more. At the very least I think we should
make inflation adjustments to our cap. Our schools are buying technology and
they should not be buying it in 1996 dollars.”
Noelle Ellerson, the
associate executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said
the funding boost is critical but the larger question is whether the
administration will seek to increase its cap and seek additional funding.
“Most people will say no, but it is now the time for a user fee increase,”
she told Bloomberg BNA. Doubling the cap would add, on average, $0.40 per month
to the USF contributions consumers and businesses already pay, Ellerson said.
“That's the price of one postage stamp a month or one Subway sub per year.”
Four congressional Republican leaders
recently urged the FCC to seek fiscal restraint on any effort to further
expand the E-Rate program, in a Jan. 30 letter. “The contribution factor for the Universal
Service Fund has increased from 9.5 percent in the first quarter of 2009 to
16.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014,” the letter said. “This growth is
indicative of the need for a thorough and critical examination of any proposals
that have the potential to further increase the bill for American families,” it
The letter was signed by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred
Upton (R-Mich.), Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Ranking
Member John Thune (R-S.D.), House Communications and Technology Subcommittee
Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Senate Communications, Technology and the
Internet Subcommittee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss).
that call for restraint,” Rosenworcel told Bloomberg BNA. “I think we have to
be good stewards for federal dollars. I think we should comb through the
program and identify things we are spending on today that just aren't smart.
If we are spending on pagers, voice mail and traditional long distance service
we should phase those things out,” she said. “I think there are ways within
this program to be smarter about the dollars we spend and I think as part of
our reform we will have to look at that.”
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has
also warned against increased contribution rates and urged the commission to
make fiscally responsible changes to the E-Rate program that would help
simplify the application process for schools, according to previous statements. He said many schools have been deterred by
the complexity of the application process or get so “tangled in red tape [that
they] don't receive their money until years later.” Pai also urged the
commission to distribute E-Rate funds more evenly and permit schools to
determine what advanced services they require.
Rosenworcel said she too
worries that the complexity of the application process is difficult for the
least resourced schools to navigate. “I agree we need to make it more
efficient, simpler for the average school to participate,” she said. “We have
got to reduce the bureaucracy of the program. We need to make it attractive
for those schools to participate and be a part of it. I think that criticism
is spot on and I think we need to do something about it.”
the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible
for this story: Heather Rothman at firstname.lastname@example.org
The announcement is available at http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-boost-investment-broadband-schools-libraries-2b.
To view additional stories from Telecommunications Law
Resource Center™ register for a free trial now
SIGN UP FOR OUR FREE NEWSLETTERS >>>>