The FCC's subsidies for Internet equipment at schools and libraries is poised for big changes.

FCC Focusing E-Rate on Broadband, but Older Tech May Suffer

The FCC's subsidies for Internet equipment at schools and libraries is poised for big changes.

The Federal Communications Commission hopes to modernize its E-rate subsidy program for schools and libraries by giving a boost to broadband coverage. However, that shift would come at the expense of subsidies for older technologies, such as analog Internet connections.

Thousands of schools and libraries depend on federal funding from E-rate (officially called the universal service Schools and Libraries Program). The program provides these institutions with telecommunications discounts of up to 90 percent in an effort to help close the technology gap. But changes are afoot concerning how that money is spent.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a March address that E-rate’s pivot toward broadband could ruffle the feathers of some still reliant on older technologies.

“At the end of this process, the way in which we pay for certain things may need to change. And the things that have historically been paid for by E-rate may no longer qualify,” Wheeler said.

When the E-rate program was created in 1996, computers were merely optional tools in the classroom. But their use has grown along with the Internet. Now, computers have become integral to learning. A 2013 Broadband Commission report states: “In the [21st] century, education cannot be separated from technology.”

Not every classroom in America has the resources that requires. But a shift in how the government subsidizes that technology could help lagging school districts to narrow the gap.

Making the Shift

In June 2013, President Barack Obama announced ConnectED, an initiative to give 99 percent of students access to high-speed Internet service by 2018. Perhaps taking that challenge to heart, the FCC announced in March that it was reviewing several changes to its E-rate program which could take effect as early as 2015.

Among these proposed reforms is a shift in focus that would prioritize deploying broadband access, likely at the expense of older technologies such as dial-up Internet connections. Without additional funding for the program, which has an annual budget of $2.25 billion, some E-rate subsidies will have to be trimmed.

Many school districts don't have the funding to pay for internal systems to support wireless routers, so they rely on copper wiring instead, according to The Hechinger Report. A survey of 469 school districts found that a quarter of them used half of their E-rate subsidies to pay for telephone bills, according to a report by the Consortium for School Networking.

The FCC’s proposed reforms, however, call for "less support for voice services," with plans to reduce the subsidies offered for those expenses over time from a 90 percent discount in 2015 to 15 percent in 2018. FCC officials say this shift would be an opportune time for those reliant on older voice services to make the jump to newer solutions, such as Voice Over Internet Protocol systems.

“We expect that the diminished availability of E-rate funding for voice services will be ameliorated by the fact that many applicants have transitioned or will transition to VoIP,” according to the FCC’s release.

But forcing schools to make that digital shift runs the risk of alienating districts that are unable to make the leap to newer technologies, says John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, an E-rate consulting firm. Instead of a top-down mandate for which technologies are prioritized under E-rate, Harrington says the FCC should consider allowing schools to match up the funds with their needs.

"You can't come up with a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem," Harrington says. "Let the schools make their own priorities, and I guarantee you that you'll get more bang for your buck, because the dollars will be focused where they're needed the most in each district."

Although the FCC's public comment period for these proposed reforms ended April 21, you can still express your thoughts through Funds For Learning's nine-question survey. Answers will be collected anonymously and compiled into a briefing for the FCC later this year. Their survey ends June 4.

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May 23 2014