Apr 172013

At a recent education technology policy summit, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made a compelling case for a major overhaul of the E-Rate program. The E-Rate of the future – E-Rate 2.0 – would “reboot, reinvigorate, and recharge” the E-Rate program as we know it.

As Commissioner Rosenworcel explains, the current system is not keeping pace with reality. Year after year, the demand for E-Rate support is double the annual $2.3 billion currently available. More than 80% of schools and libraries do not feel that their existing broadband connections meet their needs. As a result, school administrators face tough choices about how to divvy up that connectivity and determine which grades (sometimes, which classrooms) will get it and which programs can reasonably be run at the speeds available. Increased adoption of the Common Core education standards – a key part of which involves an online assessment of students – only serves to increase the need for more bandwidth. Regrettably, however, roughly half of E-Rate schools only have Internet connectivity at speeds of 3 Megabits or less. Access to adequate broadband capacity is “not a luxury,” according to Rosenworcel, but rather “a necessity for our next generation to be able to compete.”

Commissioner Rosenworcel proposes a multi-pronged approach to revamping the current E-Rate program and realizing the benefits of E-Rate 2.0. Among the suggested changes are:

• Increase E-Rate funding levels by redirecting money saved from audits of the Lifeline (low-income) universal service program to E-Rate 2.0. Audits of the Lifeline program have already saved more than $200 million in 2012 and are on track to save as much as $400 million in 2013.

• Set clear capacity goals for schools seeking E-Rate funding. Currently, only 15% of schools believe they have the capacity they need. Commissioner Rosenworcel proposes that, by the 2015 school year, every school should have access to 100 Megabits per 1,000 students; and, by the end of the decade, every school should have access to 1 Gigabit per 1,000 students. Going forward, every E-Rate applicant should also be required to collect information from applicants about their existing capacity and projected needs.

• Establish more public-private partnerships to create “cost effective technologies, educational applications, and devices” for classrooms across the country.

• Simplify the process for E-Rate applicants by allowing multi-year applications and greater use of consortia applications. These changes would reduce paperwork and administrative expense, while allowing for greater scale and more cost-effective purchasing.

• Increase the availability of broadband connectivity outside the classroom. Commissioner Rosenworcel notes that many students have no broadband access outside of school hours, making it difficult for them to complete basic school assignments. The Commissioner calls for a study of the FCC E-Rate School Spots program – which allows schools to stay open after classroom hours for community broadband needs – to see how it might help close the digital learning gap.

Any such changes would need the approval of the full Commission before taking effect. We are likely to see whether any of them have traction in the coming year.