FCC Votes To Launch E-Rate Reform

Agency Will Look to Refocus Program from Connectivity to Speed
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The FCC Friday launched its reform of the E-rate schools and libraries subsidy, proposing to refocus the program from connectivity to capacity and speed, collect more and better data, simplify the application process and take other steps to modernize the program. The vote was unanimous.

The E-rate program provides discounted broadband service to schools and libraries through the FCC's Universal Service Fund, a fund paid into by telecom providers--the fee is passed onto subscribers.

The proposed reform has three main goals: 1) insuring affordable access to 21st Century communications; 2) maximizing its cost-effectiveness; and 3) streamlining its administration.

It tees up a number of ways to do that, including setting bandwidth targets, phasing out support for outdated services like paging, phasing in new services for support, and collecting more accurate and relevant data. Its bandwidth targets mirror those of President Obama, who has asked the FCC to use E-rate to help deliver 100 Mbps broadband per thousand students by 2015 and 1 gig by 2020.

Among the possible ways to streamline the process, the FCC item asks whether it should move to all online filing. It also asks about allowing multi-year filing or consortia applications. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said both are good ideas.

The commission is also looking to more equitably distribute the funds. It has heard from members of Congress whose constituents pay in more than they get out, a criticism that has been applied to the overall Universal Service Fund, of which E-rate is a subset.

"Classrooms most evolve beyond a 19th century model," said FCC acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who called the vote a pivotal moment. She said that students needed high-speed connections "and they need them now." Clyburn credited her colleague, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, along with a number of members of Congress, with being pioneering voices for E-rate modernization.

Rosenworcel has been pushing for an E-Rate 2.0 approach that the FCC proposals outlined Friday closely mirror, including setting bandwidth targets and simplifying the process. "We fail our kids if we expect digital-age learning will happen at dial-up speeds," Rosenworcel said.

Commissioner Ajit Pai also voted for the item, which including seeking comment on his approach to reform. Pai pointed out some of the problems with the program, including that it is complicated, that there is a lack of information on the program, that it continues to pay hundreds of millions to subsidize traditional phone service, while hundreds of millions of dollars remains unspent elsewhere--Rosenworcel also suggested it was time to stop supporting service like paging so that money could be used for advanced communications support.  

Pai is also concerned that reform not necessarily equated with expanding the program.

Preceding the vote--in essence providing an ad for focusing on speed and capacity rather than connectiviy--was a presentation, led by former Republican Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and LEAD Commission member Jim Steyer (Common Sense Media) to focus on speed and advanced technology so kids would have the best tools available to tap into the digital future.

In the presentation, Steyer outlined a five-point digital education plan that would depend on those high-tech tools: 1. Solve the infrastructure challenge by wiring every school and classroom with high speed broadband; 2) Put learning devices in hands of every child by 2020--Steyer says that ought to be doable by 2016; 3) Adopt sophisticated digital curricula that will encourage innovation--in education, as everywhere, content is king; 4) Encourage and embrace model schools; 5) Train teachers.

Spellings pointed out that most schools (80%) say they don't have sufficient capacity to meet current, much less, future needs.

The White House last month announced a new initiative to get high-speed broadband to America's schools and libraries That so-called ConnectED program has a goal of connecting 99% of students to high-speed wired and wireless broadband (speeds of no less than 100 Mbps and preferably 1 Gbps) within five years. The president called on the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to "modernize and leverage" its E-rate program to achieve that goal.

“We commend the FCC’s effort to update the Universal Service Fund e-rate program," said Kathleen Grillo, SVP of Verizon, in response to the vote. "Modernizing the e-rate program is an important part of the efforts to ensure that our education system will harness the power of broadband to change the way teachers teach and students learn, and prepare them to enter the digital economy. Verizon looks forward to working with the FCC to modernize this important program.”