ConnectED and E-rate Reform: The Conversation Begins

Back in July, the Federal Communications Commission sought public input on a review of the commission’s E-rate program which reduces the costs of telecommunications services for schools and libraries around the country. The FCC recognized that schools and libraries increasingly require high-capacity broadband (1) connections to take advantage of digital learning technologies that hold the promise of substantially improving educational experiences and expanding opportunity for students, teachers, parents and whole communities. As part of the review, the FCC proposed three goals for the program – and measures to achieve these goals:

  1. Ensuring schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st Century broadband that supports digital learning;
  2. Maximizing the cost-effectiveness of E-rate funds; and
  3. Streamlining the administration of the E-rate program.

The FCC is responding to a growing chorus of calls to modernize the E-rate program and ensure high-capacity connections to schools and libraries nationwide. In June, President Barack Obama announced the ConnectED initiative aimed at connecting all schools to the digital age. (2) The ConnectED initiative seeks to connect schools and libraries serving 99 percent of our students to next-generation high-capacity broadband (with speeds of no less than 100 Mbps and a target speed of 1 Gbps) and to provide high-capacity wireless connectivity within those schools and libraries within five years. President Obama specifically called on the FCC to modernize and leverage the E-rate program to help meet those targets.

September 16 was the deadline for the first wave of public comments. Now stakeholders in this proceeding will review the public input and offer additional comments to help guide the FCC’s review. By October 16, the second wave of public comments must reach the FCC and then the agency will begin reviewing that input.

The Benton Foundation published a short synopsis of what’s at stake in this debate earlier this summer. We also announced that we had created an online resource, ConnectED and Modernizing the FCC's E-rate Program, to help you track developments in this debate. In order to capture the importance of the E-rate program, we’re aggregating and highlighting new research, analysis, speeches, filings, and press accounts about modernizing telecommunications infrastructure for schools and libraries. We are linking to workshops, hearings and other public forums where the future of the E-rate is being discussed. We're also looking at the enormous benefits of faster Internet in schools and libraries for children and educators, for rural America and bridging the Digital Divide, for anytime anywhere anything learning, for people with disabilities and more. We will be inviting stakeholders in this debate to share their best thoughts, so we can keep the conversation moving forward.

At Benton as elsewhere, we have grave concerns about the U. S. educational system. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has dropped 10 positions in both high school and higher education graduation rankings, according to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report. Rebecca Strauss, the report’s author and associate director of Renewing America publications at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns of a growing achievement gap between the wealthy and the poor and the long-term negative impact on the nation’s future productivity.

Strikingly, the report does not focus on the average amount spent on education per student in the U.S., but rather on the unequal investments. The majority of developed countries invest more resources per pupil in lower-income school districts than in higher-income ones. It is the reverse in the U. S., in large part because local property taxes provide the most revenues for K-12 public schools. The investment gap continues in college and has increased significantly over time. If students find themselves in a resource-strapped environment, they are more likely to be plagued by achievement gaps for the rest of their lives.

Skeptics may say that technology will not solve the investment gaps. At Benton, our concern is that information and communications technology should not add to these disparities. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 authorizing the creation of the E-rate program, only 14 percent of classrooms had access to the Internet, and most schools with Internet access (74 percent) used dial-up Internet access. (3) By 2005, nearly all schools had access to the Internet, and 94 percent of all instructional classrooms had Internet access. (4) Similarly, by 2006, nearly all public libraries were connected to the Internet, and 98 percent of them offered public Internet access.

In 2013, the question isn’t which school or library has Internet access and which doesn’t. The question is what is the educational capacity of the school’s or library’s telecommunications infrastructure.

In schools that combine high-capacity broadband connectivity with cutting-edge educational tools and content, teaching and learning are transforming. In these schools we find customized teaching opportunities, giving students and teachers access to interactive content, and offering assessments and analytics that provide students, their teachers, and their parents, real-time information about student performance. (5) High-capacity broadband is also expanding the boundaries of our schools by allowing for interactive and collaborative distance learning applications, providing all students – from rural communities to inner cities – access to high-quality courses and expert instruction, no matter how small a school they attend or how far they live from experts in their field of study. High-capacity broadband platforms and the educational options they enable are particularly crucial for providing all students, in both rural and urban communities, customized and personalized education and access to cutting-edge learning tools in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, thus preparing our students to compete in the global economy.

High-capacity broadband allows libraries to provide patrons the ability to search for and apply for jobs; learn new skills; interact with federal, state, local, and Tribal government agencies; search for health-care and other crucial information; make well-informed purchasing decisions; engage in life-long learning; and stay in touch with friends and family. Libraries are uniquely important because they provide Internet access to all residents in the communities they serve. (6) In addition, libraries support distance learning and continuing education for college and adult students. (7)

Unfortunately, many schools and libraries cannot take advantage of high-capacity broadband. As of 2010, only 10% of schools and libraries reported broadband speeds of 100 Mbps or greater, while 48 percent reported broadband speeds of less than 10 Mbps. (8) Approximately 39 percent cited cost of service as a barrier in meeting their needs, and 27 percent cited cost of installation as a barrier. (9) Likewise, although the speeds of library connections have been increasing over time, many libraries report that speeds are insufficient to meet their growing needs. An annual survey done by the American Library Association (ALA) shows that in 2011-2012, while 9 percent of libraries reported connection speeds of greater than 100 Mbps, 25 percent of libraries still have speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less, and approximately 62 percent of libraries reported connection speeds of 10 Mbps or less. (10) America’s 16,417 public libraries serve more than 77 million computer users each year, yet only half of these multi-user outlets offer Internet speeds above the FCC’s home broadband recommendation of 4 Mbps. Thus, notwithstanding the trend towards faster speeds, 41 percent of libraries reported that their speeds fail to meet their patrons’ needs some or most of the time. (11)

The FCC’s review of the E-rate program includes making high-capacity broadband more affordable for schools and libraries, but also addresses options for ensuring equitable access to limited E-rate funding. In the months ahead, we should not lose sight of the importance of addressing the disparities in education investment.

"Human capital is perhaps the single most important long-term driver of an economy," said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Strauss. "Smarter workers are more productive and innovative. It is an economist's rule that an increase of one year in a country's average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth. Most of the value added in the modern global economy is now knowledge based."

The only way America will again rise to the top in education is by lifting up every student. Unleashing the potential of high-capacity broadband in all schools and libraries could be a key driver in closing U.S. achievement gaps.

Amina Fazlullah is Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation. Kevin Taglang is the Foundation's Executive Editor.

Notes
1. The FCC is using the term “high-capacity broadband” to describe the evolving level of connectivity schools and libraries need as they increasingly adopt new, innovative digital learning strategies.
2. See The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, ConnectED: President Obama’s plan for Connecting All Schools to the Digital Age available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/connected_fact_sheet.pdf
3. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2001 (2002), available at http://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/US_ED/NCES2018.pdf (last visited July 15, 2013); U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2005, at 4-5, 16 (2006), available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007020.pdf.
4. See id. at 4-5.
5. See Foundation for Excellence in Education, Digital Learning Now! at 11-12 (rel. Dec. 1, 2010), available at http://www.digitallearningnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Digital-Lea...)
6 Letter from Emily Sheketoff, Executive Director, American Library Association, to the Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States, CC Docket 02-6, at 1 (dated July 8, 2013).
7 Id. at 1.
8. See Federal Communications Commission, 2010 E-rate Program and Broadband Usage Survey: Report, at 4-5 (Wireline Comp. Bur. 2011), 26 FCC Rcd 1, available at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-10-2414A1.pdf
9. Id. at 2, 9.
10. See American Libraries Association, Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012, American Libraries Magazine, at 23, available at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/4673a369#/4673a369/1
11 Id. at 23-24.


By Amina Fazlullah.
By Kevin Taglang.