The bill also calls for another five-year pilot program that would make Head Start programs and community colleges eligible for up to $150 million a year in e-Rate funding. Community colleges and Head Start programs would be selected based on their need, their “maximization potential of broadband use consistent with their educational mission,” and their “innovation with respect to use of broadband, web-based information and applications.”

Funding eBooks

The most innovative part of the new bill calls for up to $50 million per year in e-Rate funding to be used for secondary schools to adopt electronic textbooks.

Schools must show how eBooks would be incorporated into the curriculum, and implementation must be on a “technology-neutral basis.”

This pilot program would last four years. At the end of the third year, the Federal Communications Commission would produce a report to Congress assessing the value of the eBook pilot, based on metrics that would gauge electronic books’ affect on digital literacy and overall student learning.

Streamlining the e-Rate and accounting for inflation

If the bill becomes law, within six months the FCC would have to implement policies to simplify the e-Rate application process to improve program administration and minimize the burdens on applicants. These would include allowing applicants to apply for telecommunications discounts once every three years, instead of annually, and ensuring that schools “receive clear and current information regarding their application and the e-Rate program.”

Finally, the bill would provide for an inflation adjustment to the current $2.25 billion annual funding cap, so funding would increase with inflation.

Mixed reaction to the bill

Markey’s bill seeks to address several FCC proposals for leveraging the e-Rate to deliver broadband to more Americans. But reaction to the bill has been somewhat mixed.

“We appreciate Congressman Markey identifying ways to streamline the application process and to increase the $2.25 billion funding cap,” said Peter Kaplan, director of regulatory affairs for e-Rate consulting firm Funds For Learning, in an interview with eSchool News. “Most stakeholders certainly support increasing the cap, at a minimum, to keep up with inflation and continue to want to see more reform to help administrators have success in navigating the regulatory hurdles.”

Not everyone thinks the new bill will work.

“While I think the ideas brought up in this bill are worthwhile, I’m completely dumbfounded at the assumption Markey and others are making that e-Rate 1.0 actually worked,” said Geoff Daily, contributing editor for StreamingMedia.com and editor of App-Rising.com, a daily blog on the intersection of broadband networks, applications, and policy. “Do schools have enough bandwidth to meet their needs today? What about tomorrow? Can we declare mission accomplished? I’m here to say today that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding ‘no.’”