Dear Senator Rockefeller,
Thank you for the pivotal role you played in creating the E-rate program in 1996, -and for your call this week for a “major expansion” of this incredibly successful program. “If we really think about how to improve this program and move it forward,” you observed, “it can continue to provide serious rewards for our students, teachers, parents, and communities.” Now is the time, you said, “to create E-rate 2.0.” I could not agree more.
The opportunity exists, like never before, to leverage the Internet to educate students, to support teachers, and to positively impact our nation. Our students, teachers, and parents expect Internet access in our schools and libraries — and the demand for that connectivity in schools is skyrocketing. Access to interactive educational resources, “bring your own devices”, and online testing is driving a steady increase in the need for Internet access. Since 1998, the demand in schools has increased over 250%.
Surging Demand for Internet Access
The challenge our budget-stricken schools face today is how to pay for both the broadband they need and the infrastructure necessary to support that kind of high speed connectivity. The E‑rate program helps connect over 52.2 million students to the Internet. It is the primary funding source connecting our nation’s most important asset, our children, to the Internet. But E-rate funding has only increased a miniscule 6% since 1998.
Connecting Students, not Buildings
The E-rate program was founded on an incredibly simple, yet powerful principle: getting students connected. But the program has drifted from this original construct. It now limits E-rate support for most applicants to monthly services that connect buildings to the Internet, but not necessarily students. That is because funding for Internal Connections has all but dried up. As you suggested this week, it would be wonderful to bring a one-gigabit connection to every school in America, but we need to make sure that this high-speed connection makes it all the way to the student. Otherwise, there will be a tremendous amount of bandwidth and money wasted.
Our schools and libraries are clamoring for Wi-Fi connections and network wiring to connect teachers, students and the public to the Internet. Yet, at the time our schools and libraries need it the most, the E-rate program has stopped supporting these critical “internal connections.” It is not enough to bring a high-speed connection to the front door of a school or library building. We need to bring that connection all the way to the student or library patron — wherever in the building he or she may be.
Answering the Call
The FCC can take action immediately to update the E-rate program, and based on the FCC Commissioners’ respective statements at your oversight hearing, it sounds like they are poised to do just that. This is wonderful news. The E-rate compliance firm that I represent, Funds For Learning®, has developed a proposed framework to help in that regard. It is based, in large measure, on one of the principal recommendations of the 2003 USAC Task Force on the Prevention of Waste, Fraud and Abuse. Over the last several months, we have discussed it with representatives of organizations throughout the E-rate community and used their valuable feedback to help us refine it. The framework has two major elements:
1) Increase the size of the USF E-rate Fund to match today’s need. In 1996, the FCC had no choice but to guess at how much E-rate funding schools and libraries would need. Today, we know. Last year the demand for E-rate funding was $5.2 billion.
2) Restore funding to connect students, not buildings. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has described this aspect of our plan like this:
“In summary, the FFL plan would enable the Commission to allow applicants to set their own E-Rate budget priorities, thus providing the flexibility and predictability they need to make intelligent planning and purchasing decisions, as outlined in their Technology Plans. M-DCPS strongly believes that implementation of these simple adjustments to the E-Rate program would ensure that local needs be the only driving force behind ERate procurements. This practice led to the E-Rate Program’s early success and is even more integral to its sustainability today.” (https://www.fundsforlearning.com/news/2013/03/miami-dade-superintendent-voices-support-for-e-rate-reform)
Without a massive overhaul of the E-rate program, or even congressional action, the program can be increased to meet today’s needs and funding restored for internal connections.
Detailed here, our proposal calls on the FCC to set an annual “per student” ceiling on E-rate discounts. This would allow applicants to set their own funding priorities, while encouraging them to properly plan, budget, and submit cost-effective applications in a timely manner.
Thank you again, Senator Rockefeller, for your unwavering support of this important program over the years. I am prepared to help in any way I can to see that your vision for E-rate 2.0 becomes a reality.