Big changes to federal program could mean better access, connectivity

eRate-changesIn the midst of a federal government shutdown, strained school budgets, and calls for education reform are potentially wide-reaching changes to the eRate—the federal $2.25-billion-a-year program that makes it possible for schools and libraries to connect to the internet and give students the opportunity to cultivate the skills they need to compete in a global economy.

Recent efforts to improve schools’ access to reliable high-speed internet have increased, and manifested most notably in President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of U.S. students and schools to high-speed broadband internet in five years. This initiative is critically linked to the eRate program, experts say.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the eRate, issued a rulemaking process to evaluate the eRate in its entirety, and more than 800 schools and districts, ed-tech advocates, and stakeholders submitted comments to the FCC regarding these proposed changes. Initial comments were due in September, and reply comments are due on Oct. 16, although the actual deadline remains uncertain because the FCC is shuttered during the federal shutdown. Comments will likely be due as soon as the FCC resumes operations.

(Next pages: What changes will most modernize the eRate?)

“The last time such a pivotal moment in ed-tech policy occurred was 1996, when a bipartisan coalition of senators—led by Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine—created the eRate program,” wrote Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, in a September eSchool News column. “Back then, the goal—now largely achieved—was to ensure that every classroom had a basic connection to the internet. Now, 17 years and more than $30 billion in eRate commitments later, the stars seem to be aligning for big changes to the eRate.”

“Obviously, the potential of the ConnectED initiative is very significant,” said Brian Stephens, a senior technology and regulatory analyst with eRate compliance firm Funds For Learning. “We want to get the fastest internet connections as possible and get the best resources to teachers and students—understanding what it will take to get us there is the tough part.”

Speaking during an edWeb webinar that offered an update on the eRate’s current status, Stephens said that the program in its current form may not be structured in the way it needs to be to get the nation’s schools and libraries connected.

This past program year, schools requested approximately $5 billion in eRate funding—nearly twice the program’s capacity. More than 52 million students in 113,000 individual school buildings rely on the eRate for internet connectivity.

Without new regulations, 47 percent of schools will have no eRate support in 2014, and by 2015, there will be no support for 71 percent of schools, according to FFL estimates.

“This is the most comprehensive look at that program we’ve had since its inception in 1998,” Stephens said.

(Next page: Commenters’ recommendations)

Stephens said the comments revealed a few common themes and changes:

  • Availability of funds: Commenters overwhelmingly suggested that the FCC increase the amount of money available to the eRate program. Other commenters suggested changes in the discount matrix, capping the maximum discount at different levels for different types of services (i.e., Priority 1 services can be discounted up to 90 percent, while Priority 2 services could be discounted up to 50 percent).
  • Eligibility: The NPRM made mention of changes to products and services funded under the eRate. Most commenters were in favor of retaining web hosting as an eligible service. There was mixed opinion on whether support for voice service and basic maintenance should be eligible. Commenters also explored defining technology standards, such as the number of wifi points a school needs, and the quality of network connections. Some organizations left comments urging the establishment of minimum connection criteria—how much bandwidth a school needs, how many wireless access points adequately cover a school, and the standards of quality that should factor into these evaluations.
  • Other areas concerning potential changes: Commenters also touched on new funding allocation rules, new or simplified forms, changing competitive bidding requirements, new measurements and metrics, and new process requirements.

“We know for certain that the FCC is going to be making changes, and evaluating input from everybody who supplies it,” Stephens said.