But the plan notes that “inadequate connectivity speeds and infrastructure issues are frequently reported, and bandwidth demands are projected to rise dramatically over the next few years.”
The plan recommends a set of rule-making goals for establishing minimum broadband connectivity for schools and libraries and prioritizing funds accordingly, while giving schools and libraries more flexibility to purchase the lowest-cost broadband solutions.
Scott Weston, communications director for e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning, attended the hearing and noted the number of recommendations that were made regarding modifications to the e-Rate program.
“As Commissioner [Robert M.] McDowell noted, these are recommendations that will be discussed in great detail through the FCC’s rule-making process and Congressional action. And not every recommendation will eventually become reality,” he said. “I think the message for schools and libraries to take away from today’s announcement is to be prepared for possible changes to how e-Rate funding is requested and what it supports. But, these changes won’t come overnight. Months, and probably years, will pass before some of the recommended changes are made to the e-Rate process.”
However, Weston noted that some changes are in the process of being made.
“A potential short-term change is to raise the e-Rate funding cap to adjust it for inflation. This is something that the FCC may act upon without Congressional intervention. As the plan states, the e-Rate cap of $2.25 billion per year hasn’t been adjusted since the inception of the e-Rate program. This means that schools have less buying power today, in terms of e-Rate dollars, than they did in 1998,” he said.
The broadband plan proposes to update the e-Rate program to permanently enable schools to use e-Rate funding to give community members computer access during off-school hours. Last month, the FCC announced that it would change the e-Rate’s rules to allow this accommodation for the 2010-11 program year.
“Schools now have the option to permit the general public to use their internet connections whenever school is not in session,” noted Phoebe Yang, general counsel for OBI. “This allows adults to take digital literacy courses, unemployed workers to seek online job-search tools, and citizens interested in using internet-based government services to benefit [as well].”
The plan also proposes to let the e-Rate fund wireless connectivity to portable learning devices. Students and educators should be allowed to take these devices off campus so they can continue learning outside school hours, it explains.
Lucy Gettman, the National School Boards Association’s director of federal programs, said she was pleased with the plan’s potential.
“We are pleased that the national broadband plan recognizes the importance of strengthening the role of schools and libraries through the e-Rate program and other initiatives that provide 21st-century skills and prepare students and communities to be competitive in a global economy,” Gettman said.
“As technology initiatives become increasingly vital to education, we support the plan’s efforts to increase the cap for e-Rate and preserve the current eligibility structure of schools and libraries.”