FCC Chairman Wheeler’s E-rate reform proposal should move forward, and here is why: it would be incredibly unfair to ask students to put high-speed Internet access on hold for another year or two while the adults in Washington, DC try to get their act together. Chairman Wheeler’s math works and his proposal will help get more students connected to the Internet more quickly. His proposal is what we need.  And we need it now. 

Should the E-rate funding cap be increased? Of course it should. But E-rate stakeholders must be realistic – that is not going to happen this year.  I want to see more funding in the E-rate program as much as anyone, but I cannot, in good conscience, let principles stand in the way of what is best for America’s students, as they matriculate through schools that lack adequate high-speed Internet connectivity. Chairman Wheeler’s proposal, while far from perfect, is a step in the right direction because it would reinstate a critical component that is missing from today’s E-rate program:  funding for on-campus connectivity.

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For years, we have been making the case to increase the E-rate funding cap:

  • In 2011, Funds For Learning submitted a letter to then FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski requesting an increase in the E-rate funding cap.
  • In 2012, Funds For Learning submitted a petition, signed by over 1,700 people, asking that the E‑rate funding cap be increased.
  • In 2013, Funds For Learning presented a detailed E-rate reform proposal to the FCC. Among other things, it called for an increase in the E-rate funding cap.
  • In 2014, Funds For Learning again submitted a detailed proposal for protecting rural schools, maintaining discount rates, and, you guessed it, raising the E-rate funding cap.

We know that the funding cap should be increased – 17 years of increasing E-rate demand has made this obvious. Unfortunately, that is not in FCC Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.  The Chairman has made it abundantly clear that an increased funding cap is not in the works for this round of E-rate reform.

Then why do we support his proposal?  The answer is simple:  (1) today’s E-rate program is not serving its beneficiaries very well; and (2) the program is on an unsustainable path that will lead to fewer funding commitments and longer delays.  Simply put, the status quo is unacceptable.  Note that if reform had been adopted last year, we would not be in this position today. (There could have been funding for internal connections in 2013.) Waiting until 2016 or later would be unconscionable. Reform needs to be enacted now for the 2015 funding year.

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Funds For Learning has been reviewing and analyzing E-rate funding data for years.

  • Funds For Learning was among the first to show that– based on real data – remote rural schools do, in fact, require extra E-rate support, and how much.  We could have stopped there, but instead we invested a tremendous amount of time into developing a data-based solution to the E-rate funding crisis that would support all schools, and which paid special attention to the unique needs of schools located in remote rural areas. (Ironically, some have maligned us for not considering the needs of rural schools when, in fact, our proposal was the only one submitted to the FCC that offered specific protections for remote rural schools.)
  • Funds For Learning’s services help to support over 6 million students. Our clients tell us time and again that they need funding for internal connections in order to connect their students and library patrons.
  • It is not just our clients that say they need more help. Since 2008, we have conducted four nationwide surveys to determine what E-rate applicants need and what concerns them the most. In our most recent survey, 88% of applicants told us that their computer networks are not ready for the demands about to be placed on them.

Based on what we at Funds For Learning see and do daily, this is what we know:  schools and libraries desperately need to upgrade and enhance their on-campus networks.  Chairman Wheeler’s proposal will help them do exactly that. And because it is the only reform plan with any realistic chance of being adopted this year, it is, by default, the best option that E-rate stakeholders have today, which is why they should get behind it.  The alternative – another year without on-campus connectivity – is not an acceptable choice.

Now is the time to start changing the E-rate program for the better. We cannot let another year go by without getting our nation’s students the connections they desperately need. Sometimes something is better than nothing; and in this case doing something to provide our students with Wi-Fi connections to the Internet certainly is.  Now is the time to take a first step. Mr. Wheeler is leading. We need to follow him.