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No More Wasting Valuable Broadband: The FCC Gets it Right

If you wanted to, you could do it at your public library. And now you can do it at your local elementary, middle or high school too.  Access the Internet for free, that is.

Today, the FCC, as part of its big push to make broadband available to more members of the public announced that schools receiving E-rate support for Internet access may, for the first time, open up their high-speed networks to the public at times when those networks would be, for the most part, pretty much going to waste – evenings, weekends, holidays, and summer breaks.   Before today, that would have been a violation of program rules.

This is not good news.  This is great news!  This decision represents the kind of extremely intelligent, common sense, “let’s go get the job done” kind of policy-making that has been absent from the E-rate program for far too long.  What we’re witnessing here today, we hope, is just the tip of the iceberg. 

When asked to describe the E-rate program, some members of the E-rate community, people who have involved with the program since the beginning and who care about it deeply, have frequently been forced to mutter awkwardly in corners about the death of common sense.  Today, no doubt, they will be singing a very different tune.  Today’s FCC decision brings with it the prospect of more good things to come – it’s clear that common sense is very much alive!  We look forward to seeing it grow. 

Over the years and for a wide variety of reasons, E-rate rules have led to some very odd and inconsistent results, to say the least.  If you think about it though, especially in the context of where this program sprang from, namely, a few lines of not too terribly instructive language in a statute hundreds of pages long, that should not have been surprising to anyone.  And, moreover, if you consider the revolutionary nature of it —  (it’s not a grant program, it’s a discount program – huh?) — veering off the road and hitting a few cars along the way was certainly to be expected.  And hit those cars the program did.   But it survived, fortunately.  And here we are today, twelve years later, back on the road and pointed in the right direction.  The reason for that is simple.  Today, Chairman Genachowski and Commissioners Copps, McDowell, Clyburn, and Baker  gave the program exactly what it needed: traction.  And for that, we say thank you.  

There is another issue, closely related to this one, which we urge the Commission to tackle next.  In light of today’s decision, it should not be difficult.  It involves what USAC describes, incorrectly, we believe, as classes of ineligible users, such as adult education students.  USAC spends a great deal of time ferreting out whether and how many of them may be in a school and using the school’s E-rate supported services.  When USAC finds them, it pounces — either reducing or denying funding, depending on the circumstances.  It would take much too long to explain here why the Commission should quickly put an end to this practice.  If you’re interested (and who wouldn’t be?), please take a look at these Comments that FFL recently submitted to the Commission.

All I want to point out here is this.  I think you’ll agree that it speaks volumes all by itself.   The after school hours “open access” policy that the Commission announced today instructs USAC not to deny or reduce a school’s funding if the school permits adults to use the school’s network after hours.  The Final Jeopardy answer is this: after school, on weekends and during the summer.  And, the Final Jeopardy question is this:  when do adults attend adult education classes? 

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