FCC Chairman Proposes E-Rate Modernization to Bring High-speed Wi-Fi to Every Student and Library


In case you missed it in the din of other news, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler last week made what should be considered one of the more important proposals of his tenure thus far. Chairman Wheeler circulated an E-Rate Modernization proposal to his fellow Commissioners to revitalize the E-Rate program for what’s described as “the world of personalized learning.” The goal as the headline notes is to assure that every student and library in the U.S. has access to the high-speed the Wi-Fi infrastructure needed in an era where the predominant and preferred interaction device of choice requires next generation wireless access at affordable prices.

The proposed modernization is the first major change to the 18 year-old  E-Rate program which was originally established to give educational institutions, especially their libraries, hard-wired access to the Internet. As the FCC points out in its statement about the proposal, “E-Rate has helped transform schools’ and libraries’ access to modern communications networks. But educational connectivity has changed: whereas once it was revolutionary to connect a computer lab down the hall to the Internet, harnessing the full value of digital learning today means enabling all students to go online from their desk or from any library workspace.“

In fact, E-Rate has done what it was intended to do. E-Rate was established in the 1996 Telecommunications Act and is the federal government’s largest education technology program. In 1996 only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet and most schools with Internet access (74 percent) used dial-up Internet access. By 2005, the E-Rate program had successfully connected 94 percent of U.S. classrooms to the Internet, and by 2006, nearly all public libraries were connected to the Internet (98 percent).

That was then and this is now

We all know from our own experience that having a wired connection to classrooms and libraries no longer cuts it. Realities are that students are being armed with personal devices to enhance their learning and that means personal and portable connectivity. It also means that ubiquitous campus-wde Wi-Fi is the solution to the challenge. However, this is a “Wi-Fi gap,” and Chairman Wheeler believes that when it comes to bringing schools into the 21st century this is no higher priority that could be as beneficial to helping kids learn better and faster than providing them high-performance access to the information and tools they will require to be successful.

This Wi-Fi gap is non-trivial. A few facts from the FCC tell the story:

  • Three out of five schools in America lack the Wi-Fi needed to deploy 21st Century educational tools.
  • Half of school buildings have older, slower internal wiring that won’t carry data at today’s broadband speeds.

Yet, in the face of this, the FCC points out that:  no E-Rate money was available for Wi-Fi last year, even when some Wi-Fi support was available in previous years, it reached just 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries.  

And, it is not just the Chairman who wants to make this a priority. In fact, the impetus behind this has come from almost every part of the education ecosystem, i.e., school CTOs, state education leaders, education technology innovators, teachers and parents. They all say improving in-classroom Wi-Fi is one of, if not the most important, connectivity upgrade priorities.

So what is the modernization proposal of E-Rate entail?

The draft order as mentioned is focused on the largest and most urgent need—closing the Wi-Fi gap—while ensuring E-Rate money is spent smartly and improving program administration. What is being proposed is as follows.

Close the Wi-Fi Gap:

  • Commit at least $1 billion in support to Wi-Fi next year to connect over 10 million students across the country in 2015, followed by another $1 billion in 2016 with predictable support continuing in future years.
  • Provide multi-year funding predictability to ensure widespread and equitable distribution of support, and stop cutting rural schools out of Wi-Fi funding.
  • Begin a multi-year transition of all program funding to broadband, by gradually phasing down support for non-broadband services.
  • Adopt clear broadband goals to measure overall program success, while maintaining local flexibility to determine the needs of individual schools and libraries.

Make E-Rate Dollars Go Farther:

  • Set the maximum program match at 4 to 1 – which means for every dollar the poorest schools spend, the program will spend four – for Wi-Fi services to promote cost-effective decision-making.
  • Speed consortium applications to drive down prices.
  • Increase transparency on how E-rate dollars are spent and on prices charged for E-rate services.
  • Leverage GSA pricing so schools can buy for less.

Deliver Faster, Simpler, More Efficient Applications and Other Processes:

  • Fast, simple process for multi-year applications.
  • Expedited process for small dollar, cost-effective applications.
  • Speed review of all applications.
  • Move to electronic filing of all documents.
  • Simplify discount calculations.
  • Zero tolerance for fraud or abuse: toughen document retention and site inspection rules.

Action this summer would allow new rules to be in place for the 2015 Funding Year, which would support Wi-Fi upgrades across the country in time for the 2015-2016 school year.

It should be noted that while the order concentrates on closing the Wi-Fi gap, this is only one step in what Chairman Wheeler would like to do with E-Rate modernization to address other important connectivity issues facing schools and libraries. In fact, the proposed order builds on the top-to-bottom administrative review of E-Rate that the Chairman has instituted to update the program.

The good news is that the FCC has identified $2 billion that could be freed from existing reserve accounts and other sources over the next two years towards an initial down payment on accelerating Wi-Fi deployments in schools and libraries. The $1 billion for Wi-Fi next year would be the first portion of this down payment. In addition, the FCC is working with the program administrator, USAC, which has already doubled the pace of E-Rate applications being processed, compared to any previous year in E-Rate history.

If the Chairman has his way, coming to classrooms and libraries in your home town will be pervasive Wi-Fi if you do not already have it. Let’s face it, 18 years without modernization given what has transpired in just the last three or four is way too long for such a revamping of focus and resources.  This one looks like it has been crafted to achieve bi-partisan support based not only on the intent, but the identification of how it will be paid for and administered.  For those of us in the U.S., expedited action on the item and approval would be a nice gift to give the entire country even for those who may reside in areas that already are technology up-to-date.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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