FCC Launches E-Rate Pilot Program To Connect School Students Wirelessly

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

The Federal Communications Commission has launched a new pilot program aimed at providing more internet options for K-12 students through the federal E-rate program.

The program, dubbed “Learning On The Go,” will appropriate $9 million to 20 schools and libraries in 14 states for the 2011-2012 funding year to extend wireless broadband internet access to students at their homes or outside of their schools.

Though the Universal Service Fund's E-rate program has historically only supported “on-campus” internet connectivity, regulators have introduced the program as a first step toward addressing the ever-increasing digital mobile needs of America's students. According to a 2010 survey conducted by the agency, 50 percent of schools and libraries plan to implement or expand the use of digital textbooks and other wireless devices for digital learning.

20 Projects Selected.

The 20 projects selected by the commission, made formal in an order [DA 11-1181] released July 11, include initiatives focused on improving off-campus access to e-textbooks for students; internet connectivity for students using netbooks in remote, isolated areas; and expanded access to online education programs for students unable to attend classes.

One project will benefit the students of Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter, a college prep high school for boys from low-income households, which allows sophomores to access the internet through wireless mobile cards. Another, at the Onslow County Schools, in Jacksonville, N.C., provides smartphones to at-risk high-school students to help them increase their math and science skills.

The FCC initiated the pilot program last September in its Schools and Libraries Sixth Report and Order and, in November, issued a public notice setting a December application deadline. The commission received a total of 94 applications and issued a public notice in March announcing the initial selected project participants.

Qualified pilot programs will be funded in the 2011-12 school year, assuming compliance with all other program requirements. The selected schools and libraries must submit an interim report to the commission on the projects by February 24, 2012 and a final report by Oct. 31, 2012. The commission will then evaluate the effectiveness of the Learning On The Go program to determine whether and how off-premise wireless services should be made eligible for continued E-rate support.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made E-rate reform a priority at the agency, calling his recent proposals a “key pillar of comprehensive reform of universal service,” which was one of the key recommendations in the agency's National Broadband Plan.

The E-rate program was established by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to provide funding for schools and libraries to connect to the internet, and while the program has been widely regarded as a success, an estimated 80 percent of fund recipients say they need faster connections to meet the current speed and capacity demands of their users, among other modernizations.

By Paul Barbagallo