e-Rate gets facelift with wireless pilot, community access

Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under an FCC ruling.
Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under a new FCC ruling.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Sept. 23 voted to upgrade and modernize the federal $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours—a step that supporters and stakeholders say will help students and community members build important digital literacy skills.

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.

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.

“When our schools and students win, our country wins,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “At connected schools, students can access the best learning tools, the best teachers, and the best tutors wherever they are.”

Genachowski said the FCC’s actions recognize that “digital literacy is essential in a digital economy, and that connected schools and libraries are a requirement to digital literacy. We fail our students if we don’t teach basic digital skills.”

The FCC’s plans for an off-campus wireless pilot are in line with the Obama administration’s goal of broadband and community access, said John Harrington, CEO of e-Rate consulting firm Funds For Learning. By expanding a school’s wireless internet reach into its surrounding neighborhood, community members suddenly have access to a reliable network with fairly light evening traffic.

“It can become a beacon, literally, for internet access,” he said.

While details stemming from the FCC’s vote will reveal more information, for now “the [program’s] overall direction is definitely one that makes sense,” Harrington added.

“Programs such as the e-Rate have been instrumental in keeping many of America’s schools and libraries connected to the outside world,” said FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. “[This] change will encourage wider broadband use without increasing Universal Service distributions.”

The steps come after the National Broadband Plan laid out a series of recommendations to promote broadband-enabled learning inside and outside classrooms, including modernizing the e-Rate program. The plan found that basic broadband connectivity struggles to keep pace with high-tech tools that today’s students use. In fact, an FCC survey revealed that 79 percent of responding e-Rate recipients said they needed faster connections to meet the demands of students, teachers, and library patrons.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the vote was another important step forward in implementing the National Broadband Plan, and he said the e-Rate program is his “favorite program of all.”

Copps said the resources available to schools and libraries through the e-Rate program will go a long way in benefiting students and community members.

One notable change classifies dark fiber—or unused fiber—as an acceptable service under the e-Rate program.

During the technology boom of the 1990s, many telecom companies installed more fiber-optic cables than would ever be used. The dot-com bust led to an oversupply of unused dark fiber, enabling many companies to purchase their own dark fiber and create their own networks.

Transceivers at either end of the fiber-optic lines activate the fiber, and simply switching out the transceivers for higher-speed versions will increase network speed and capacity.

When the e-Rate program first got off the ground, many schools used dial-up internet connections but have since transitioned to wireless connectivity and high-bandwidth applications, Harrington said.

“It just makes sense that the program has to catch up to meet where we are today,” he added. “The change that will allow schools to lease dark fiber is a big step forward, because if a school can lease dark fiber, what they have is a nearly unlimited bandwidth pipe. It opens the doors to more bandwidth.”

Other improvements designed to bring the e-Rate up to date include indexing the cap on e-Rate funding to inflation in a fiscally responsible manner; supporting connections to dormitories of schools that serve students facing unique challenges; strengthening protections against waste, fraud, and abuse; and streamlining the application process.

The American Library Association said the vote is “a significant first step toward truly simplifying and streamlining the e-Rate program, which is critical to libraries across the country.”

The FCC also voted to open up unused airwaves between television stations for wireless broadband networks that will be more powerful and can travel farther than today’s Wi-Fi hot spots.

The five-member FCC voted unanimously to allow the use of so-called “white spaces” between TV stations to deliver broadband connections that can function like Wi-Fi networks on steroids. The agency is calling the new technology “super Wi-Fi” and hopes to see devices with the new technology start to appear within a year.

Genachowski said white-spaces networks will serve as “a powerful platform for innovation,” driving billions in industry investment.

Leading technology companies, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Dell Inc., are eager to develop the market. They say television white spaces are ideally suited for broadband because they are able to penetrate walls, have plenty of capacity, and can travel several miles.

Just like the spectrum used by Wi-Fi, the white spaces will be available to all users free of charge, with no license required. The FCC hopes they will help ease strain on the nation’s increasingly crowded airwaves as more consumers go online using laptops and data-hungry smart phones.

Although the FCC first voted to allow the use of white spaces for broadband nearly two years ago, the plan ran into serious opposition from television broadcasters worried about interference with their over-the-air signals. Wireless microphone manufacturers and users—including churches, theaters, schools, karaoke bars, and all types of performers—raised similar concerns.

The FCC’s Sept. 23 vote mandates the creation of a database with a map of TV channels across the country, as well as big wireless microphone users, such as Broadway theaters and sports leagues. White-spaces networks and devices would be required to determine their own location and then consult the database to find vacant frequencies to use. The FCC is also setting aside at least two channels for minor users of wireless microphones.

David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, said the group will work with the FCC to develop the technical protections to safeguard television signals.

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