Expanded Broadband Access Set for School Districts

Thanks to a new plan to reform the federal E-rate program, which connects schools and public libraries to the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could add Internet access to another 6 percent of schools in the United States as early as the fall of 2014. This marks a step forward for President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to bring high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of U.S. students within five years. Access was at 94 percent as of 2005.

The Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries program, also known as the E-rate program, was created in 1997 as part of the Telecommunications Act to connect schools and libraries to the Internet at a discount. At the time, only 14 percent of schools had Internet access.

The FCC plans to increase high-speed Wi-Fi networks in classrooms and libraries, create consortiums of school districts that will purchase technological needs in bulk and streamline the application process. The current system requires much paperwork and schools sometimes wait many years for funding.

The FCC also plans to modernize the E-rate program by redirecting funds from outdated services, such as long-distance calls and paging, to broadband Internet.

Under the current E-rate format, schools can receive substantial discounts on Internet access and digital devices. Discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, with the average discount close to 73 percent. Currently the percentage is calculated on eligibility numbers for free- or reduced-price lunch programs, allowing the most disadvantaged communities to receive the highest discounts.

The FCC proposes allocating funding on a simpler, per-student basis to ensure more schools are served. Currently, E-rate funding is not helping low-income and rural students in the way the program is designed. In fact, rural and low-income schools are receiving less funding than their wealthier and more urban counterparts. The proposal suggests allocating E-rate funds on a per-student basis as well as devoting additional funds for low-income and rural schools to make sure the E-rate program helps the students it was designed to help.

The FCC’s proposal now is open for public comment. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/FCCplan.