Today the FCC took critical action to modernize the E-rate program with the most significant reform in the past 17 years.
The E-rate program was set on an unsustainable path, not providing any support for on-campus Internet access. (See analysis). Without reform, surging demand for off-campus connectivity would lead very soon to denials and/or reductions in funding for off-campus telecommunications and Internet access connectivity as well. (See analysis).
- Even in better times, the program’s arcane “priority” rules only supported on-campus connectivity in about 7 percent of America’s schools. (See here)
- Schools tell us (anecdotally and via survey responses) that on-campus connectivity is one of the weakest links in delivering Internet access to students. (See here)
In short, schools and libraries are on the receiving end of a program this has grown increasingly disconnected from their needs – a trend set to accelerate next year and beyond. Without change, we would wake up to find an E-rate program that supports only a small segment of schools and libraries, leaving most of them – particularly those in small and rural communities – without any support.
As the new head of the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Wheeler could have let these trends play out and blamed it on his predecessors – and the result would have been longer delays in funding commitments and greater uncertainly regarding E-rate support. Instead, before the situation got worse, Chairman Wheeler did something about it. He proactively brought a proposal before the Commission, knowing full well that it would spark debate and controversy. Rather than letting the E-rate program languish under the weight of 17 years of amassed administrative rules and regulations, Chairman Wheeler stepped in and offered a new direction, complete with pro’s and con’s, shortcomings and trade-offs. This is not something you see every day in Washington, D.C.
Still, there is much in today’s decision that I consider less than ideal. Nevertheless, I am convinced that today’s action by the FCC will have a net positive impact on the next two years of the E-rate program, setting it on a course that is both more sustainable and predictable; offering schools and libraries more financial support for the services that they need; and establishing a general framework that may ultimately be much stronger and healthier than the current program.
As Chairman Wheeler and his fellow commissioners continue to pursue a reformed E-rate program, I encourage them to consider adopting, in full, the Funds For Learning E-rate proposal. The themes shared in the Commission’s comments today can all be realized via the unique combination of increased funding, local technology planning and prioritization that our proposal encompasses. And I call upon education associations and other stakeholder groups to join the many schools and libraries already on record in support of the Funds For Learning proposal.
Technically, there was no action required at the FCC today. There could have been no vote. But for students and library patrons nationwide, another funding year without action to reform the E-rate program was not an option. Thank you Chairman Wheeler for your leadership and willingness to break from the status quo, even in the face of criticism from many, including myself.
I look forward to the next chapter of the E-rate success story, one that not only includes reform for the next two years, but also future modernization that will give the E-rate program even more of an opportunity to impact students and library patrons.