Navigating ConnectED and E-rate
The federal push to provide all students with high-speed broadband and mobile devices is kicking into high gear, with over a billion dollars pledged for school technology and an overhaul of the program that provides discount internet access.
The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to complete its modernization of the E-rate program this fall. Updates include shifting funding from outdated technology—such as pagers—to build broadband and Wi-Fi networks to give all schools high-speed internet access, the main goal of President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative.
Equitable access to technology will help districts close learning gaps, Richard Culatta, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, told DA in an interview. Better broadband and Wi-Fi connections will allow schools to create more individualized blended learning programs and access high-quality digital software for students, he says.
“We want to make sure students are prepared with the best materials, and teachers have the ability to connect to improve their practice,” Culatta says. “There will be some great new resources from E-rate and the private sector, but at the end of the day there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
What follows are some frequently asked questions about E-rate and ConnectED, and tips for administrators on tapping federal funding for digital learning devices and professional development.
How does E-rate work?
E-rate, created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, connects schools and libraries to the internet at a discount. The funding is collected from surcharges on telecommunications services. Only 14 percent of schools had internet access at the time; today, more than 95 percent of schools are connected with the help of these funds, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
39% of U.S. schools do not meet the goals for high-speed connectivity.
Source: 2013 EducationSuperHighway National SchoolSpeedTest
E-rate gives schools a discount of 20 to 90 percent on internet services and wiring. The percentage is based on free or reduced-price lunch numbers, so the most disadvantaged communities receive the highest discounts.
The program has an annual cap of $2.4 billion, which has remained unchanged since it was created—except for inflation adjustments in 2010. However, the amount requested by schools has steadily risen, reaching nearly $5 billion in 2012 and 2013.
Though most schools are connected, the problem today is capacity, says Justin Hamilton, senior vice president of corporate communications at Amplify, a digital curriculum and assessment provider. “The average school has the same connection speed as the average home,” Hamilton says. “But the average home was meant for two or three people, not 200 to 1,000.”
Some 99 percent of district technology leaders say they will need additional internet bandwidth and connectivity within the next 36 months, according to a fall 2013 national survey from the Consortium for School Networking. Only about 8 percent of those surveyed said E-rate funding fully met their district’s needs.
“Devices have become more powerful and less expensive over time—and demand more access,” says Brian Lewis, CEO of ISTE. “Broadband access has stopped being an add-on—it’s now and will increasingly be a necessary utility, like water or power.”
What is ConnectED?
The ConnectED initiative is Obama’s plan to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband internet within five years. The president has asked the FCC to modernize and leverage existing E-rate funds to reach this goal.
“This is the president reaffirming the need to connect students, and highlighting that it is a national priority,” says John Harrington, CEO of E-rate funding consulting firm Funds for Learning.
ConnectED has four goals:
- Upgraded connectivity: Ensuring broadband and high-speed Wi-Fi are available to virtually all U.S. students in their classrooms and libraries
- Access to learning devices: Providing students and teachers with access to affordable mobile devices to access digital resources at any time in or out of school
- Supported teachers: Offering professional development to help teachers use technology properly and efficiently to increase student achievement
- Digital learning resources: Ensuring access to high-quality digital learning materials for students and teachers.
Last February, the president announced over $750 million in private- sector funding to provide students with devices, free software and home wireless connectivity. At the time of this writing, private sector pledges had increased to $1.25 billion in funding and services, most of which will be in place by the fall.
“Those are commitments from the companies to schools, so they aren’t going to be administered by the federal government,” Culatta says.
Some, such as Safari Books, will be available for all schools to download free of charge. Others, such as free at-home wireless services from Sprint, will involve a competition and be determined by the individual company.
What is “E-rate modernization”?
Obama is calling on the FCC to reprioritize current E-Rate funding to deliver ConnectED’s goal of increased broadband access in schools.
The FCC began a comprehensive E-rate review and update in 2013, after the ConnectED announcement. The commission is working to provide schools and libraries with affordable access to broadband, maximize the cost-effectiveness of E-rate funds, and streamline the E-rate application, which currently involves a lot of paperwork.
Earlier this year, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced some details of the E-rate update, including transferring funding for outdated technology to broadband access. Wheeler also announced that the FCC would provide an extra $2 billion over the next two years for school broadband upgrades.
This is not an increase to the E-rate funding cap, but rather “a down payment on the goal of 99 percent of America’s students having high-speed Internet connections within five years,” Wheeler said in a statement.
Education groups including ISTE and the National Education Association have called on the FCC to raise the E-rate funding cap along with rearranging existing funding for broadband. The FCC will vote on the E-rate update and potentially raising the funding cap in September. The new E-rate rules could go into effect in July 2015.
What will the new E-rate application include?
By this fall, schools should be able to participate in a new, easier E-rate application process, Culatta says. The FCC proposed that funding be allocated on a simplified, per-student basis. But the new application will not be released until after the FCC votes on the new rules, which could happen as early as this month.
Instead of requiring specific infrastructure upgrades to meet ConnectED goals, the Department of Education set a threshold for connectivity rates. Schools should have a minimum connection of 100 megabits per second, and can build their infrastructure however they see fit.
“We realized that based on where schools are and what opportunities they have, they will go about getting there in different ways,” Culatta says.
The Department of Education will release a connectivity guide this fall. For example, some schools are part of special research and education networks (known as RENs), which are set up in a given region to provide high-speed connectivity to universities but often allow K12 schools to participate as well, Culatta says.
Others might be in rural areas and without an existing network, and need to hire someone to lay fiber optic cables and install the system for them, which will be costlier.
Which companies provide services for ConnectED?
Apple, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have each pledged over $100 million in devices, free software, professional development and home wireless connectivity to help schools reach the goals of ConnectED.
In April, Microsoft and its hardware partners announced the availability of tablets and laptops starting under $300 for schools. The devices, from Dell, Toshiba and other manufacturers, are Common Core testing compliant and run Windows 8.1. All public schools are eligible, and can contact their technology reseller or Microsoft for additional details.
“The goal is to bring education equity to an entirely new level, and to help students develop mastery and competency so they’re ready for the real world,” says Cameron Evans, Microsoft Education’s national chief and technology officer.
Since E-rate funding does not cover at-home connectivity, Sprint is giving 50,000 low-income K12 students home access via free 4G LTE connections starting this fall, for four years.
To use the Sprint service, schools must fill out an online application that details the curriculum, the level of internet connectivity at their school, and their location compared to Sprint Spark networks that will give the most robust connection.
“We want to make sure the speed and capacity is as large as possible so they can have as good an experience as possible,” says Scott Bennett, Sprint’s national strategic opportunity manager for education. “But a school needs to have the curriculum in place to get full advantage of the technology.”
How will teachers learn to use technology in the classroom?
President Obama requested $200 million in his 2015 budget for a new program called ConnectEDucators, part of the ConnectED Initiative, that would allow school leaders to provide professional development to teachers as they transition to digital learning and high-speed connectivity.
The funding would go toward paying for instructional coaches, digital content, and important online communication and collaboration.
“It’s about making sure teachers have the individualized support they need,” Culatta says. “We talk about personalized learning for students, and we need to talk about it for teaching.”
Alison DeNisco is news editor.