Industry Insider | Feature
What's New with E-Rate and Why You Need to Know
First some background on E-rate history: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created the legal skeleton for E-rate, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fleshed it out in 1998. The FCC regulations provided substantial discounts to public and private schools and public libraries for the purchase of telecommunications services, Internet access, and internal networking connections. The FCC now sets overall E-rate policy.
Schools and libraries bid out the services they want, and the FCC commits at least $2.25 billion worth of discounts each year of between 20 and 90 percent, depending on the school’s poverty level. The funding has remained almost the same over the years, although the demand has more than doubled. The funding comes from the Universal Service Fund (USF), supported by telecommunications carriers that pay quarterly contributions based on their revenues.
E-rate has helped to close the digital divide and has been the largest single source of technology funding for schools and libraries for many years. While schools cannot use E-rate funds to purchase most digital learning resources or enterprise applications, E-rate funding has been critical in two ways. Schools would not have nearly the level of telecommunications and Internet access they have today without the E-rate funding discounts, and schools can use their substantial savings from the discounts to purchase other products and services if they wish.
Understanding the E-rate program in general and the associated cost savings has always given sales people an entrée into discussions with CIOs and technology directors and supported the marketing and sales process. Your E-rate expertise can help you become a trusted source of information. Here are a few points to bear in mind:
- E-rate is not a grant program, and there is no competition for E-rate funds. Every eligible school and library qualifies for funding if it completes its applications properly and on time.
- E-rate funds are “off-budget,” meaning they do not require annual appropriation from Congress. USF funding means that the dollars do not come from federal taxes or other revenues under the direct control of Congress. This has been particularly fortunate in the past few years!
- Local community libraries also benefit from E-rate funding, providing students with out-of-school access to digital learning resources.
So why are people talking about E-rate today? Following President Obama’s ConnectED proposal calling for high-speed broadband access for all students, the FCC is now engaged in a public rulemaking process around “Modernizing the E-rate Program for Schools and Libraries.” Many stakeholders, including SIIA, have strongly supported the effort to review, modernize, and enhance the program.
Public comments are due to the FCC on November 8 (extended from October 16 due to the government shutdown), and additional rounds of comments will be solicited on more specific proposals over the coming months. Stakeholders hope that the changes will come in time to impact the 2014-15 school year. These changes will likely be the most significant in the program’s history and may include different priorities for how the funding can be used, increases in funding, and updated application procedures. The FCC notice seeking public comment is available online. You will want to keep a close watch on the process and look out for new rules.
Here’s why SIIA believes the proposed changes are critical. Many schools do not have the Internet access they need. Our 2013 Vision K-20 educator survey found that, although educators rank their goal for access to robust bandwidth as 3.98 on a 1-4 scale, they rate their actual access as only 3.14. Similarly, they rank their need for ubiquitous, wireless access to resources and services as a 3.89, but their actual access is only a 2.64.
So how could an enhanced E-rate program address these discrepancies? In the comments we filed with the FCC, we made the following recommendations:
- Robust student connectivity: Shift the E-rate goal of basic school connectivity to robust student connectivity, with advanced Internet bandwidth available to the student device, not just the school building.
- Affordable access: Increase E-rate funding to meet the evolving and expanding demand.
- Timely modernization and enhancement: Move quickly to meet urgent demands and increase funding to expedite additional resources when needed.
- Educational goals and flexibility: Provide flexibility to determine and measure E-rate goals and impact, without relying on student performance outcomes or similar learning indicators.
- Anytime, anywhere learning: Ensure that schools and libraries continue to receive E-rate funding, but provide flexibility to meet the learning needs of students outside of the school building and school hours.
When schools receive funding for high-capacity broadband to their buildings and for the services and equipment to disseminate broadband within those buildings, students will finally have ubiquitous wireless access to learning resources. As this situation evolves, I will update you. In the meantime, check the news coming out of Washington!