Stakeholders weigh in on eRate program’s future

e-rate-broadbandHundreds of eRate stakeholders made final efforts to show how critical high-speed broadband connections are for teaching and learning before a Sept. 16 deadline to submit comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC had asked for feedback on a variety of proposals to improve the eRate, so the $2.3 billion-a-year federal school wiring program can support President Obama’s plan to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband service within five years. Currently, the eRate meets only a small fraction of the network infrastructure needs of K-12 schools nationwide.

Citing 2013 data from its national Speak Up survey on ed-tech use, the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow outlined the need for action in its comments to the FCC: “… As demand increases for the use of more digital tools and content in the classroom, the vast majority of districts are facing a serious bandwidth capacity problem. Only 15 percent of school districts say that they have enough bandwidth capacity to support their instructional needs; and 71 percent of districts either have current problems with bandwidth issues or are concerned about the impact of implementing more digital content on their capacity.”

Elliot Soloway, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, and Cathleen Norris, Regents Professor in the University of North Texas’ Department of Learning Technologies, argued that President Obama’s ConnectED initiative “is a game-changing opportunity to bring America’s schools into the 21st century.” But they also urged the FCC “to go one step further: allow eRate funds to be used to support off-campus as well as on-campus internet access.”

Many Americans are limited by their socio-economic status and do not have home broadband access. But the FCC can “change the rule so that wireless internet access, available to the students while they are on-campus at school, is also available while the children are off-campus, in their apartments and homes,” Soloway and Norris commented.

(Next page: More stakeholder comments)

In its comments, the School District of Philadelphia cautioned that any changes to the eRate should not counteract progress that has already been made: “While certain eligibility and rule modifications will, in our opinion, help to build a stronger and more solvent eRate program and assist those schools and libraries that have had challenges in building their broadband infrastructure, those changes should not ‘transform’ the program at the consequence and expense of those who have already managed to ‘do it well.’”

On whether the FCC should set minimum broadband speeds for schools and libraries, the district said the agency “should set bandwidth goals but allow individual schools, school districts, and libraries to determine what levels are adequate for their learning environments and instructional models. Attaching an arbitrary bandwidth requirement per student would result in overestimating need for some entities and perhaps lowering the bar of connectivity for others—the latter possibly resulting in denied funding requests where bandwidth needs are arbitrarily judged as excessive.”

To ensure more funding for broadband, the FCC is considering shifting the eRate’s priorities from voice services to network infrastructure needs. Many commenters supported this move.

“Absent corrective action, there will simply be no eRate funds supporting any [broadband] connections within schools … as early as next year. This lack of funding is untenable and puts at risk billions of dollars in education investments in new assessments, curriculum, and entire models of next-generation schooling,” wrote a coalition of groups that included the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

But not everyone favored this change. U.S. Cellular said it’s not necessary to terminate eRate support for voice communications in order to advanced broadband services.

“Shifting eRate funds from voice communications to broadband services … would not put the funds to better use,” the organization wrote. “While the first goal of the eRate program … ‘is to ensure that schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st-century broadband that supports digital learning,’ there is no reason to conclude that abolishing support for cellular voice service is necessary in order to advance this goal.”

The FCC is accepting reply comments until Oct. 16. The proceeding is No. 13-184, and school leaders can review comments and submit replies here.

Laura Ascione

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