On April 11, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission’s Jessica Rosenworcel made headlines when she announced during an address at the Washington Ed Tech Policy Summit her intentions to “reboot, reinvigorate and recharge” E-Rate, a program that helps ensure that schools and libraries can obtain telecommunications and Internet access at affordable rates.
The “E-Rate of the future,” which she has dubbed “E-Rate 2.0,” will “protect what we have already done, build on it, and put [the program] on a course to provide higher speeds and greater opportunities” for students living and learning in a digital age.
In a Wednesday morning session at the ISTE 2013 conference, Rosenworcel reiterated that vision, telling attendees that “increasing broadband needs to be a national priority. Access to adequate broadband capacity in our schools and libraries isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.”
In today’s world, she added, “you shouldn’t have a classroom without broadband” — a point that elicited rousing applause from the robust crowd in attendance.
Defining E-Rate 2.0
Established by Congress in 1996, administered by the FCC and managed by the Universal Service Administrative Co., E-Rate makes discounts available to eligible schools and libraries for telecommunication services, Internet access and internal connections. These institutions apply to receive discounts on this technology, with the largest allocations going to the poorest applicants.
But as Rosenworcel pointed out, “the demand for E-Rate support is double the $2.3 billion the FCC makes available annually. Those needs are only going to grow.”
To make E-Rate work better now and in the future, she continued, the FCC needs to do five things:
1. Increase funding
The size of the current E-Rate program “was last set in 1998, when 0.03 percent of Americans had Internet access at any speed above dial-up,” she said.
2. Define clear capacity goals
“We are fast moving from a world where what [mattered was] connection to a world [in which] what matters is capacity,” Rosenworcel explained. Her goal is for every school to have access to 100-megabit-per-second connections for every 1,000 students by the start of the 2015–2016 school year. What’s more, she would like to see every school have access to 1-gigabit-per-second connections for every 1,000 students by the end of the decade.
To reach these capacity goals, Rosenworcel also proposes more data collection. “Going forward, every E-Rate application should collect information from applicants about their existing capacity and projected needs,” she said. “Armed with clear data about what schools and libraries are using, we can track our progress. We can better understand what is needed and where.”
3. Foster creative public/private partnerships
“Increasing capacity alone isn’t enough to make digital learning a reality,” she said. “Students and teachers need access to content and devices” — things that the private sector can provide by “investing in the creation of cost-effective technologies, educational applications and devices.”
4. Simplify the application process
“We need to take a fresh look at how the complexity of our existing E-Rate system can deter small and rural schools from applying,” Rosenworcel explained. Her hope is that the FCC will consider multiyear applications to reduce paperwork and administrative expenses and encourage consortia applications to create greater scale and more cost-effective purchasing.
5. Provide broadband access to students at home
Calling this “the addendum or caboose to the discussion,” Rosenworcel called for more efforts to ensure that students have access to online resources and digital content both inside and outside the classroom. “Nearly one in three Americans do not subscribe to broadband services at any speed — citing lack of affordability, lack of relevance or lack of interest,” she said.
Rosenworcel concluded her remarks by urging session attendees to make their voices heard, to help along “a modern conversation about E-Rate funding, capacity goals, public/private partnerships, simplifying the application process and studying the need for access outside of school hours.”
As she explained in the question-and-answer session that followed: “Decisions without you are decisions against you. If you are in this room and you care about this issue, I want you to participate. There’s nothing more powerful than hearing from the folks who are on the front lines about the value of this program, what they do with it, and how much they want to see it grow and thrive. [Direct] your commentary to the [FCC]. I want to be able to point to lots of letters from people like you.”