Schools weigh in on national broadband plan

Besides raising the program’s funding cap, education stakeholders suggested a variety of ways to ensure that e-Rate discounts extend to schools that need them most.

AT&T suggested that the FCC adopt a “bifurcated” approach to the application process, dividing applications between “facilities” and “recurring charges” as a way to give priority to schools that need basic infrastructure. Alaska suggested capping the maximum discount rate at 70 percent for Priority 2 services (internal network connections), so the discounts on these services would extend to more applicants.

But Alaska also was among several commenters who noted that relying on the e-Rate to help deliver broadband service to more Americans could be problematic for several reasons.

“One can argue that the primary goal and achievement of the e-Rate has been not to accelerate broadband deployment but rather to connect schools and … libraries with some degree of internet connectivity,” the state wrote in its comments to the FCC. The e-Rate “has not traditionally promoted fiber deployment, and it was not too many years ago that some FCC staff thought a T-1 [line] per school would be sufficient.”

Alaska also observed that the e-Rate’s “bottom-up” approach is awkward, because it relies on local school leaders to recognize a need and provide matching funds.

Tom Ryan, chief information officer for Albuquerque Public Schools, wrote that the FCC must implement transparent due-process procedures so e-Rate applicants can address concerns with their applications more quickly.

Albuquerque has some $15 million in e-Rate requests still pending, dating back to the 2005 funding year, Ryan wrote. He added that this “black hole” in e-Rate processing makes the program “unreliable”—and is a barrier to using the e-Rate to improve broadband deployment.

Other aspects of the National Broadband Plan

Overhauling the e-Rate is just one part of the FCC’s broadband approach. Expanding the fund that subsidizes telephone service for poor and rural communities and finding more spectrum for wireless broadband services also will be key pieces of the agency’s plan to bring high-speed internet connections to all Americans.

One proposal would use money from the general Universal Service Fund (USF), of which the e-Rate is a small part, to build broadband networks in underserved communities and pay for high-speed internet connections for those who cannot afford them. The USF, which is supported by a surcharge on consumers’ phone bills, originally was established to subsidize telephone service in rural areas.

Another FCC proposal would explore ways to make more wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband services, including the potential reallocation of some spectrum held by television broadcasters and federal agencies.

The agency also is seeking ways to promote greater use of unlicensed frequencies, such as the “white spaces” between TV stations, and development of new technologies that can make more efficient use of spectrum.

Still another proposal would seek ways to create a new market for television set-top boxes that would be able to work with any video TV service and would integrate online content and applications. The FCC wants to ensure that consumers would be able to buy these new boxes at electronics stores, rather than rent them from a cable operator or other video provider.

Blair Levin, the FCC official in charge of developing the broadband plan, said the plan would focus on encouraging competition and leveraging private-sector investments.

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