e-Rate officials say the federal program has been updated for the 21st century.
The head of the agency that administers the federal e-Rate program had strong words of support for new FCC rules that he said would further streamline the program and should deliver funding to a greater number of applicants.
In an interview with eSchool News, Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), said e-Rate coordinators have a lot to look forward to this year.
A September FCC order will upgrade and modernize the $2.25 billion-a-year program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours. The order also indexes the funding cap to inflation, which will result in more e-Rate dollars for applicants going forward.
“The FCC issued a great order,” Blackwell said. “I think it … sets out a lot of good things for applicants and service providers.”
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—which should help speed the deployment of broadband access in schools and communities that don’t have it.
Dark fiber “certainly goes along with the [Obama administration’s] broadband access initiative, [and it] allows people to take advantage of more vendors and hopefully get a better price—which will ultimately make the dollars go further in the program,” Blackwell said.
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.
Indexing the cap on e-Rate funding to inflation will bring the program up to date in a fiscally responsible manner, Blackwell said. He added that raising the cap for the 2011 funding year should help USAC fund more applicants.
“I think this order is just one of the better ones that have come [along, and it delivers] a lot of good things,” he said.
In terms of the actual application process, schools and libraries will see some changes in the existing e-Rate forms. USAC has tweaked the applications so it can collect more applicant data, but the agency has eliminated questions and information that might be unnecessary.
Blackwell said the shorter applications make things easier, which can help applicants identify mistakes quicker.