Broadband advocates spoke, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) listened. The highly anticipated—and long overdue—National Broadband Plan was at last released by the FCC on March 16. K12 education groups, including the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and the Education and Libraries Networks Coalition (EdLiNC), were pleased to see substantial improvements recommended for the E-rate program, which provides discounted telecommunications services for schools and libraries. The 376-page document, "National Broadband Plan: Connecting America," includes proposals such as raising the funding cap for the E-rate program and simplifying its application process, in addition to improving speeds and access to the Internet and helping educators leverage this technology in the classroom.
Since the program's inception in 1997, funding for it has been set at $2.25 billion per year and has not been adjusted to account for inflation. Prior to the plan's release, E-rate proponents advocated the funding cap be lifted. The FCC issued a rule-making recommendation to adjust funding, and an additional $950 million has been allocated to the program for this year from previous unused funds from schools that have scaled back projects.
"This recommendation is a significant development for K12 schools and public libraries," read a statement from EdLiNC following the plan's release. "The annual demand for E-rate discounts has routinely exceeded the cap, which has never been increased and has not kept up with inflation."
Other recommendations include simplifying the E-rate application process, which has been notoriously difficult, in particular for schools that need to reapply each year, have small broadband accounts or have multiple contracts. Another step the FCC has proposed is removing the barrier for E-rate-funded services that prevents the general public to access computers when school is not in session.
"I think that this is a great step in the right direction to increase the availability of E-rate funds and make the process easier for schools," says Scott Weston, communications executive for Funds for Learning, an E-rate consulting firm that provides assistance to both applicants and service providers.
Although pleased to see major changes, EdLiNC, NSBA, and ISTE are cautioning the FCC to preserve its resources to aid currently eligible schools and libraries before expanding the program.
The National Broadband Plan's recommendations fall under the power of different authoritative bodies, including the FCC, Congress and the executive branch. Each proposal will be open for public comment, deliberated and ultimately voted upon. The plan was originally scheduled for release in February but was delayed, as the FCC requested additional time to incorporate suggestions from different stakeholders.