Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under an FCC ruling.

Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under a new FCC ruling.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Sept. 23 voted to upgrade and modernize the federal $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours—a step that supporters and stakeholders say will help students and community members build important digital literacy skills.

The FCC also voted to let e-Rate participants use funds to connect to the internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including through existing state, regional, and local networks or by employing unused fiber-optic lines already in place.

The agency also approved a pilot program that will support off-campus wireless internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. The pilot will explore the benefits that low-cost, accessible mobile devices can bring to students, including helping to close the technology access gap between children from affluent communities and those from economically disadvantaged areas.

“When our schools and students win, our country wins,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “At connected schools, students can access the best learning tools, the best teachers, and the best tutors wherever they are.”

Genachowski said the FCC’s actions recognize that “digital literacy is essential in a digital economy, and that connected schools and libraries are a requirement to digital literacy. We fail our students if we don’t teach basic digital skills.”

The FCC’s plans for an off-campus wireless pilot are in line with the Obama administration’s goal of broadband and community access, said John Harrington, CEO of e-Rate consulting firm Funds For Learning. By expanding a school’s wireless internet reach into its surrounding neighborhood, community members suddenly have access to a reliable network with fairly light evening traffic.

“It can become a beacon, literally, for internet access,” he said.

While details stemming from the FCC’s vote will reveal more information, for now “the [program’s] overall direction is definitely one that makes sense,” Harrington added.

“Programs such as the e-Rate have been instrumental in keeping many of America’s schools and libraries connected to the outside world,” said FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. “[This] change will encourage wider broadband use without increasing Universal Service distributions.”

The steps come after the National Broadband Plan laid out a series of recommendations to promote broadband-enabled learning inside and outside classrooms, including modernizing the e-Rate program. The plan found that basic broadband connectivity struggles to keep pace with high-tech tools that today’s students use. In fact, an FCC survey revealed that 79 percent of responding e-Rate recipients said they needed faster connections to meet the demands of students, teachers, and library patrons.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the vote was another important step forward in implementing the National Broadband Plan, and he said the e-Rate program is his “favorite program of all.”

Copps said the resources available to schools and libraries through the e-Rate program will go a long way in benefiting students and community members.

One notable change classifies dark fiber—or unused fiber—as an acceptable service under the e-Rate program.

During the technology boom of the 1990s, many telecom companies installed more fiber-optic cables than would ever be used. The dot-com bust led to an oversupply of unused dark fiber, enabling many companies to purchase their own dark fiber and create their own networks.