FCC Moves to Reform E-Rate Program

By Jon Anzur

The number of digitally-connected schools has increased 83 percent during the past 15 years, thanks in part to E-Rate, a $2.3 billion federal program centered on providing schools and libraries with high-speed broadband and wireless Internet. The program has helped to revolutionize learning by facilitating schools’ access to modern telecommunications services and equipment. Today, 97 percent of American classrooms are connected to the Internet.

But the needs of schools and libraries have shifted with the ever-evolving technological landscape since Congress established the program in 1996. Bipartisan reports dating back to 2005 called the E-Rate program “a well-intentioned program that nonetheless is extremely vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, is poorly managed by the FCC, and completely lacks tangible measures of either effectiveness or impact.” The program is also struggling to supply sufficient high-speed broadband; nearly 80 percent of respondents to a 2010 survey of E-Rate applicants said that their broadband connections did not fully meet their current needs.

So on July 19 the FCC unanimously voted to approve a proposal intended to modernize and possibly expand the program. The Commission’s move comes one month after President Obama’s visit to a North Carolina middle school, where he called for the FCC to “begin a process that will connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband Internet within five years.”

“In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” the president said.

The Commission’s proposal calls for simpler rules on, and prioritizing funding for, new fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency, as well as phasing out funding for outdated services like paging and directory assistance. These steps are intended to make more room for high-speed broadband in schools and libraries.

The proposal also seeks to promote purchasing consortiums where schools and libraries can come together to aggregate demand in order to receive lower prices, thus achieving the Commission’s goal to maximize cost effectiveness. And to streamline administrative processes, the Commission will create a streamlined electronic filing system in which all documents must be filed.

All three FCC commissioners voted to approve the proposal. Yet, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last Wednesday, Commissioner Ajit Pai criticized the current E-Rate program for its wasteful and misplaced spending.

“Put simply, the current program doesn’t always target the right kind of services for the 21st century,” he said. “And it doesn’t always target the schools most in need.”

Commissioner Pai outlined what he termed a “student-centered” E-Rate program, including initiatives to end incentives for wasteful spending, increase transparency, and distribute funds more fairly.

He said that his plan differs from President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which proposes specific bandwidth goals for schools over the next few years and has received support from Pai’s Democratic colleagues, Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in that it defers to the characteristics and needs of local communities.

“Faced with the choice between a one-dimensional national benchmark or local autonomy that benefits local students,” Pai said, “I favor the latter.”