The e-Rate can play a significant role in the national broadband plan being developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), panelists said during an Aug. 20 hearing–but for this to happen, commissioners must raise the program’s funding cap.
"When the e-Rate began, our connectivity consisted of a few dial-up connections in our school libraries," said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La. "Today, this has all changed. We now have over 20,000 computers connected to our network, and–at any given moment–over 12,000 of them are accessing the network. Each day, our students, teachers, and administrators make more than 5 million web page or network object requests, send or receive over 35,000 eMail messages, and transmit 18.5 gigabytes of data."
Yet, as successful as the program has been in connecting schools and libraries to the internet, demand for the e-Rate still far exceeds what is available for disbursement, Abshire testified.
"Since the program’s second year, the [FCC] has not raised the e-Rate’s annual cap above its current $2.25 billion funding level, not even providing it an inflation adjustment," she said. "On average, annual demand for e-Rate support outstrips the annual cap by $1.75 billion, with this year’s $3.99 billion demand mirroring the average shortfall."
Abshire’s testimony came during a hearing convened by the FCC to discuss the implications of its national broadband plan for education. The hearing was one of several the agency is holding as it works to create a national strategy for ensuring that all citizens have affordable access to high-speed internet service.
Abshire, who is responsible for her district’s e-Rate applications and audits, described how the program has provided more than $5 million in telecommunications discounts to her district to significantly upgrade its network infrastructure; support phone, cellular, and voice-over-IP services; and enable IP video services.
Abshire said the e-Rate provides many benefits, but she recommended several reforms that should be made to enhance the program’s effectiveness, including raising the annual funding cap to at least $4 billion.
Growing demand for e-Rate discounts "is pushing the e-Rate to the brink of being unable to satisfy the internal connections requests from our nation’s poorest of the poor: those schools and libraries that are eligible for 90-percent discounts," Abshire said. "As it is, the program has been unable to satisfy all internal connections requests since its second year … and hasn’t been able to provide internal connections funding to applicants eligible for less than 80-percent discounts in the past five funding years."
Calcasieu Parish, like many other districts, has suffered from the shortfall in e-Rate funding, Abshire said.
"The only year in recent memory that we received funding for internal connections was in 2006-07, and it took Hurricane Rita … and a special exemption from the Commission for that to occur," she said. "Other than that, we have not received any substantial internal connections dollars since the program’s inception–and we don’t expect this year to be any different, because of our low to mid 70-percent discount eligibility."
The lack of available funding for internal connections "is crippling my district educationally," Abshire said. Currently, Calcasieu Parish has a single 100 Mbps connection to the internet.
"With the expansive use of online learning and the growing digital content needs in each of our schools, this level of service is grossly inadequate," she said. "Last year, in fact, we were forced … to institute bandwidth caps across the district. This has led to major issues. For example, even though each classroom has approximately five computers, our district can only guarantee two wired network connections per classroom. Imagine having five phones, but only two can dial out or get calls. Imagine having five cars, but only two of them have wheels. Now imagine having five computers, but only two can access all the information out on the internet. What do you tell the other three students? Which computer would you want to use?"
Tom Greaves, chairman of education consulting firm The Greaves Group, provided information to support Abshire’s case. Greaves said data from a study his firm conducted in 2008 show the average student has just six kilobits per second of bandwidth while at school–yet many students have hundreds of times more than that when they get home.
"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize there’s a problem," he said.
Greaves’ study also showed that 40 percent of districts believe the e-Rate isn’t meeting their current needs–and 60 percent say they’re throttling back their internet use to save on bandwidth. He recommended that the FCC increase the program’s annual cap to $6 billion, indexed for inflation, and add support for wireless broadband on students’ mobile devices (with appropriate usage caps).
Greaves also urged the FCC to allow schools to apply for licenses to set up their own networks using unused spectrum in the 2.5 GHz frequency, particularly if they’re located in an area of the country without broadband coverage. In addition, he asked the agency to fund research on conservation techniques for education broadband.
Abshire recommended that the e-Rate’s rules be changed to "allow community members to use e-Rate supported services for continuing education and similar purposes during non-school hours." She said this change would allow schools to provide technology classes for underprivileged families, and let families use technology labs after hours.
"The e-Rate has already proven to be of major significance in providing broadband to schools and libraries nationwide, and I am confident that it can play an even larger role in future broadband dissemination and usage if its annual cap is raised and its after-school use rules are relaxed," she concluded.
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Building a Cost-Effective Digital Classroom resource center. If today’s students are to compete in an increasingly global economy, schools will need much more than textbooks and traditional pencil-and-paper approaches to succeed. Students need the benefit of technology-rich classrooms to give them marketable skills that they will use throughout their professional lives. Go to: Building a Cost-Effective Digital Classroom