The Federal Communications Commission chairman wants to add $1.5 billion to the federal assistance program that helps bring high-speed Wi-Fi to every student and library in the country.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is circulating a draft plan that would raise the overall funding cap for the program from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion a year. The E-Rate program funds technology improvements in the nation’s schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, through fees on telecommunication services.
The new cash is largely in response to an ongoing clamor from educators who have complained that the E-Rate program is too underfunded to significantly replace slow and out-of-date technology in schools. Although the FCC will distribute about $2.4 billion in awards this year, another $2 billion in requests from deserving schools will go unmet due to a lack of funding.
In July, the FCC announced a modernization plan to streamline applications, increase support targeted for wi-fi in rural school districts and begin a multi-year transition of all program funding to broadband, by gradually phasing down support for non-broadband services. Phasing down support for legacy services which will save an estimated $3.5 billion over five years, Wheeler said.
This new plan to add more money to the E-Rate distribution is being dubbed by Wheeler as “Taking the Next Step in E-Rate Modernization.”
The original E-Rate program cap was set at $2.25 billion in 1997, and lacked an annual inflation adjustment until late 2010. Since then, inflation adjustments have shifted the cap to $2.4 billion. More than 60% of the chairman’s proposed $1.5 billion cap increase represents simply a “catch up” of the lost inflation adjustment from 1997 to 2010; the rest reflects the significant growth in the bandwidth needs of schools and libraries.
Needs and capacity have changed since 1997 when a 56 Kbps (56,000 bits per second) modem was a common form of Internet connectivity. “High speed” may have meant 1 Mbps (1 million bits per second). The FCC’s new long term targets call for 1 Gbps (1 billion bits per second). The original program was structured around bandwidth needs of less than 0.1% of current targets.
Wheeler says that without the additional funding, libraries and schools will be unable to upgrade their infrastructure, and the students and communities they serve will not have access to high-speed Internet service and new educational tools and technologies. The tech gap is huge. For example:
- Approximately 41% of rural public schools lack access to fiber networks sufficient to meet modern connectivity goals for digital learning, compared to 31% of suburban and urban public schools.
- 68% of all districts (73% of rural districts) say that not a single school in their district can meet high-speed internet connectivity targets today.
- 39% of schools in affluent areas currently meet speed targets, but only 14% of schools in low income rural and urban areas meet those targets.
- 45% of school districts lack sufficient Wi-Fi capacity to move to one-to-one student-to-device deployments which is increasingly necessary to achieve modern digital learning objectives.
The E-Rate program is a Clinton-era initiative created as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It was designed to provide all of the nation’s schools and libraries, particularly those in poor and rural communities, with advanced communications services — including high-speed broadband Internet connectivity — at sharply discounted rates. If Wheeler’s plan is approved by the FCC, the estimated additional cost to an individual rate payer would be approximately 16 cents a month, about a half a penny per day or about $1.90 a year — less than a medium-sized soda at fast food restaurant or a cup of coffee.