Schools weigh in on national broadband plan

School stakeholders have several suggestions for how the e-Rate can be a part of the National Boradband Plan.
School stakeholders have several suggestions for how the e-Rate can be a part of the National Broadband Plan.

To help provide broadband access to more citizens, the Federal Communications Commission should expand the eligible uses of e-Rate discounts to include after-school programs and community centers, many school leaders and education groups say—but only if the $2.25 billion-a-year funding cap also is raised.

The federal stimulus package that Congress passed last year directed the FCC to submit a National Broadband Plan to lawmakers by Feb. 17, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has asked for a one-month extension so the agency can comb through the vast number of public comments it has received over the past year as it has gathered input on how to make universal broadband a reality.

Several dozen of those comments come from education stakeholders, who responded to the FCC’s call for feedback on how it might leverage the e-Rate in its national plan.

The e-Rate provides telecommunications discounts of up to 90 percent for eligible schools and libraries, based on the percentage of students they serve who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and whether they are considered in an urban or rural area.

Under current program rules, schools applying for discounts cannot use e-Rate funded equipment to deliver internet access to their communities, either by acting as an internet service provider or by opening their facilities to the public after school.

Relaxing these eligibility rules is an approach favored by several education stakeholders, including Albuquerque Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), AT&T, and the state of Alaska, among others.

Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive, said his organization supports opening e-Rate supported connectivity in schools for community use during non-school hours, but this change is only a small step in terms of what the FCC must do.

“The far bigger and more significant leap it must pursue is raising the e-Rate’s $2.25 billion annual cap, which has remained unchanged for more than 10 years,” Krueger said. He cautioned that the program’s current funding level soon won’t be capable of supporting the growing demand for connectivity in schools and libraries.

“The program is oversubscribed by approximately $1.75 billion each year and, without a major funding increase soon, the e-Rate may not be able to support the internal connections needs of our nation’s poorest students. That is a tragedy that must be averted. We urge the commission to include substantially raising the e-Rate cap in its final plan,” Krueger said.

The FCC should expand e-Rate benefits to include after-school use of equipment, wrote the Chicago Public Schools in its comments—but the agency also should remove the many barriers to applying, such as redundancies and complexities in the forms that cause many schools to lose out on needed funding.

AT&T also supports after-hours use of equipment by community members. However, this raises several filtering issues that the FCC must think through, the company noted. Under current program rules, schools receiving e-Rate discounts must certify that they are using “technology protection measures” to block access to inappropriate content by minors. If adults use e-Rate funded infrastructure, will these filters still be in place, and who will be responsible for turning them on or off?

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