Uncertainty. That’s the key theme as school officials prepare to apply for the next cycle of eRate funding.
In one of the most comprehensive evaluations of the eRate since its inception in 1997, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year issued a rulemaking process to overhaul the $2.3 billion-a-year federal school wiring program from top to bottom.
The move came in response to President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, a call to bring broadband internet access to 99 percent of classrooms within the next five years. Even the eRate’s strongest supporters agree that the program—designed in an era when dial-up internet access was the norm—is ill-equipped to deliver on this promise as presently constructed.
This past 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 would be no support for 71 percent of schools, according to estimates from eRate consultant Funds for Learning (FFL).
Yet, despite a widely recognized need for change, it appears that any adjustments to the eRate for the 2014 program year will be minor at best.
While eRate applicants ponder what changes actually will take hold, the eRate remains “status quo, for now,” said FFL’s chief executive, John Harrington. All signs point to only modest alterations, if any, for the coming year—with more radical changes possibly on tap for the 2015 program year.
Why do experts believe that major eRate changes will be put off for at least another year? One reason is timing. The government shutdown in October delayed the FCC’s review of public comments reacting to its proposed changes by at least a few weeks. Even without this delay, the new rulemaking process kicked off rather late in the game to make any significant impact for 2014.