Simplifying the rules on fiber deployment is one of many areas the FCC is seeking comment on.

The Federal Communications Commission voted on July 19 to open a new rulemaking process aimed at updating and enhancing the federal eRate program, which currently provides $2.3 billion in telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries.

The vote, which follows President Obama’s ConnectED proposal last month to enhance high-speed internet access for the nation’s schools, marks an important first step in transforming the program to meet current needs, advocates say.

“Only a little over one month since President Obama announced his bold agenda, we are encouraged by the FCC’s steps to make ‘ConnectED’ a reality in classrooms nationwide,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, in a statement.

“The sooner we raise the eRate’s annual cap and equip schools with increased bandwidth, the sooner students will reap the benefits of true 21st-century teaching and learning environments,” Krueger added. “This initiative moves our schools in that direction.”

The FCC’s action begins a thorough review and modernization of the eRate built around three goals, the agency said: increased broadband capacity, cost-effective purchasing, and streamlined program administration.

(Next page: More details about the FCC’s notice)

Increased broadband capacity

To ensure that schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st-century broadband technology, the FCC will seek comment on a range of proposals, including simplifying the rules on fiber deployment to lower barriers to new construction; prioritizing funding for new fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency; phasing out support for services such as paging and directory assistance; ensuring that schools and libraries can access funding for high-speed Wi-Fi networks; and allocating funding on a simplified, per-student basis.

Cost-effective purchasing

To maximize the cost-effectiveness of eRate purchases, the agency seeks comment on how to increase consortium purchasing to drive down prices; how to create other bulk buying opportunities; how to increase transparency of prices and spending; how to improve the competitive bidding processes; and a pilot program to incentivize and test more cost-effective buying practices.

Streamlined program administration

To streamline the administration of the eRate program, the FCC seeks comment on speeding the review of eRate applications; providing a streamlined electronic filing system and requiring electronic filing of documents; increasing the transparency of eRate processes; simplifying the eligible services list and finding more efficient ways to disburse eRate funds; reducing unused eRate funding; and streamlining the eRate appeals process.

The FCC’s proposal also seeks comment on a variety of other issues, including the applicability of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to devices brought into schools and libraries and to devices provided by schools and libraries for at-home use; adjusting to changes in the National School Lunch Program that affect the eRate; additional measures for protecting the program from waste, fraud, and abuse; wireless community hotspots; and the adoption of eRate program procedures in the event of a national emergency or disaster.

This would be the first comprehensive update of the eRate program since 1997, the FCC noted. According to a 2010 survey of eRate applicants, half had slower connection speeds than the average American home—and 39 percent cited cost of service as the greatest barrier to better meeting their needs.

John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, a consulting firm that helps schools apply for eRate discounts, made a case for why the eRate needs updating in a recent op-ed piece for eSchool News, called “How to improve the eRate.”

“The eRate’s current framework bears the marks of the 1997 era in which it was launched,” Harrington wrote. “Back then, dial-up internet access was the norm, and the Wi-Fi Alliance was still two years from being born. … In 1998, schools reported spending $15 per student in annual telecommunications and internet expenses. Today, that number is $50 per student and rising—an increase of 300 percent. Meanwhile, available eRate funding has increased a meager 6 percent.”

eRate stakeholders will have 60 days to comment on the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 13-100) once it appears in the Federal Register. To leave a comment, go to http://www.fcc.gov/e-rate-update.