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FCC aims to expand broadband access in schools

FCC also wants to create consortiums of districts to purchase tech needs in bulk to drive down costs

Districts may have more affordable access to broadband internet service as early as fall 2014, thanks to an FCC proposal to reform the federal E-rate program that connects schools and public libraries to the internet. The proposal marks a step forward for President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative to bring high-speed internet access to 99 percent of U.S. students within five years.

The FCC wants to increase high-speed Wi-Fi networks in classrooms and libraries, and create consortiums of school districts that will purchase technological needs in bulk to drive down costs. The FCC also proposes using a faster application process for funds, as the current system requires a lot of paperwork and schools sometimes wait years for the money.

The FCC also plans to modernize the program by redirecting funds from outdated services, such as paging and long-distance calls, to broadband. The proposal is now open to public comment.

The federal E-rate program was created in 1996, as part of the Telecommunications Act, to connect schools and libraries to the internet at a discount. Only 14 percent of classrooms had internet access at the time. By 2005, the most recent year for which numbers were available, E-rate had connected 94 percent of classrooms to the internet. Today, 98 percent of students enrolled in public or private K12 schools in the United States are benefitting from E-rate funds.

“In the past 15 years, internet connectivity has become critical for education activities, as well as access to resources, testing, and administration of the district,” says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, the nation’s largest E-rate consulting firm. “Schools have tight budgets already, and now there’s pressure to get robust networks that are always on, especially for Common Core testing.”

The program spends about $2 billion per year. But this coming year, schools and libraries requested $4.9 billion to pay for connections and equipment, the FCC reported. And in 2010, according to an FCC study, more than half of schools and libraries said their internet connections were too slow to meet their needs.

Under the current E-rate format, schools can receive a discount of 20 to 90 percent on internet services and digital devices. The percentage is based on eligibility numbers for free or reduced-price lunch, so the most disadvantaged communities receive the highest discounts. The average school receives a 73 percent discount, Harrington says. The FCC now proposes to allocate funding on a simpler, per-student basis to ensure more schools are served.

Increased broadband connectivity will allow teachers to better integrate technological resources such as videos and interactive games into instruction, Harrington says. “In many cases now they are still held back—we have the content, but often lack a delivery mechanism for that content.”

Technology organizations, including SETDA and ISTE, support the proposal to update the program. “Working in partnership with the states, the federal government continues to have a critical role to play in the deployment of high-speed broadband to schools, classrooms, and communities to meet the evolving needs of teaching and learning in a digital age,” says Douglas Levin, executive director of SETDA.

For more information, read this FCC fact sheet.