FCC to Double Funding for Broadband Capacity in U.S. Schools and Libraries

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By Bryce Baschuk  

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 Congress.

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 Adelphi, Md.

'Critical' Step Forward

“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.

'Gift' to Rural America

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.

The 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.”

Republican Resistance Growing

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 said.

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).

“I support 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.”

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

The announcement is available at http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-boost-investment-broadband-schools-libraries-2b.

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