“The advantage a district has is that it can leverage and negotiate–if your district has a concern about throttling or blocking, put that in your requirements–you won’t use a service provider that slows down, throttles, or blocks traffic,” Harrington said. “That’s an easy way to make sure that, at least for schools and libraries, it isn’t an issue. That’s not something the typical consumer can negotiate, but a school district absolutely can.”
But the E-rate program is likely to see changes in the near future, Harrington said, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said he would like the program’s administration to improve. In fact, new CEO Radha Sekar joined USAC in December. Former CEO Chris Henderson resigned in May after Pai sharply criticized the program’s online E-rate Productivity Center.
But Pai’s criticism focuses on the E-rate program’s administration and doesn’t threaten the program’s existence, Harrington said.
“Chairman Pai and his advisers have consistently said they continue to support the E-rate program and have no plans to try and repeal or change it,” he said. “E-rate has had a 20-year track record of bipartisan support, and we’ve not seen anything that would indicate this has changed whatsoever, not on Capitol Hill and not at the FCC.”
What the FCC does want to address, he said, is how the program is administered. “Pai has written to USAC calling for a better job,” Harrington said.
The current set of E-rate rules expires in 2020, and the regulatory process to renew those rules will likely kick off in the next 6-12 months, Harrington said, adding that he expects to see a discussion around the rules in that timeframe.
And while net neutrality has been controversial, the E-rate program hasn’t the same sort of debate about the program itself–the existential question has not been there, Harrington said.
This fall, under Pai’s leadership, the FCC opened a special filing window for schools and libraries impacted by the hurricanes. That isn’t something an agency does for a program it doesn’t intend to continue, Harrington added.
“You don’t open a special window if you don’t think the program is worth supporting. That’s the first time in the 20-year history of the program that the FCC decided a special group of applicants needed help,” he said. “Everything I’m hearing is a discussion about how the program should be improved or modified–and that’s a very different discussion than whether we should have an E-rate program or not.”