Providing E-rate funding to small and rural schools is a laudable goal and one I fully support. Most school and library stakeholders agree: we need to protect small and rural schools, and the current E-rate Priority rules are not doing the job.

Absent E-rate reform, small and rural schools will receive less and less of the critical E-rate resources that they need. USAC recently reported that FY2013 demand for Priority One funding is $2.709 billion, an increase of 10.8 percent from last year’s demand of $2.444 billion.  In another words, the demand for Priority One services alone exceeds the $2.38 billion FY2013 funding cap by almost $330 million.  Fortunately, USAC was able to use unused funds from previous years in order to fund all the Priority One applications in FY 2013.  Based on this trend:

Beginning in FY 2013, there will be no internal connections applications funded for small and rural schools (or any other school and library for that matter.) This equates to 19,345 rural school sites, representing 4,763,226 students that will be denied funding for the infrastructure necessary to connect their students to the Internet.

Beginning in FY2014, there will be insufficient funding for telecommunications and Internet access. Funding requests will either be prorated and adjusted downward for all applicants, or worse, a discount threshold applied, and many applicants denied any funding whatsoever. (Even with a relatively low discount threshold of 60%, over 3,200 rural school sites would be left completely out of the E-rate program.)

To address this need, some have suggested removing a few items from the eligible services list or changing the E-rate discount matrix; however, based on the current demand for advanced telecommunications and networking solutions by the K-12 community, those ideas will do very little to make a real difference.

Funds For Learning has proposed a solution to put a budget or funding cap on each applicant. This cap would be based on a school’s enrollment, discount rate and location.  The proposal includes specific measures to guard E-rate funding for small and rural schools. This proposal ensures that no matter what any other applicant requests, there will be E-rate funds available for small and rural schools. No other proposal offers this type of protection for small and rural schools. Additionally, the Funds For Learning proposal seeks to eliminate the FCC priority system, thereby allowing small and rural schools the option to purchase anything off of the eligible services list. Not only would there be funding available for all small and rural schools, but these schools could use E-rate funds according to their own local priorities.

It is essential that small and rural schools receive E-rate support for all types of eligible goods and services. I  just hope the FCC can make the necessary changes in time for FY 2014.