The Importance and Effectiveness of the E-Rate Program

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, August 28, 2023

Digital Beat

The Importance and Effectiveness of the E-Rate Program

Adrianne B. Furniss

An important aspect of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s work has focused on schools and libraries. As far back as 1995, Benton published The Learning Connection: Schools in the Information Age, examining how educators were grappling with the difficult interplay of technological change and educational values. We began by reviewing the potential for technology-driven education reform and outlining an agenda for building the human infrastructure of the Information Age by addressing such issues as content, curriculum reform, professional development, assessment, equity, and community involvement.

Because high-speed broadband can be a learning accelerator and opportunity equalizer, ubiquitous access is as important to learning today, as pencils and the chalkboard were yesterday.

The following year—thanks to the leadership of Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA)—President Bill Clinton signed into law the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996, which took the bold step of creating the “E-Rate program” to connect schools and libraries to the internet. The goals of this immensely successful program are just as vital today as the day the Act was signed—helping to connect every school and library to high-speed broadband, every classroom to Wi-Fi, and every student to digital learning opportunities.

When the E-rate was first conceived, just 4 percent of classrooms had access to the internet. By 1999, 95 percent of U.S. schools were connected to the internet. By 2014, almost all schools had some access to the internet but only 65% of schools had access to adequate broadband. This “connectivity gap” was especially acute in rural schools that may not have been able to afford the cost of broadband connections or may have had no choice at all as to what broadband provider to use.

In the 21st century, as broadband’s potential expanded, educators realized that connection speeds had not kept pace, and they needed higher-capacity networks to ensure that every child could take full advantage of the digital learning opportunities now becoming available.

Because high-speed broadband can be a learning accelerator and opportunity equalizer, ubiquitous access is as important to learning today, as pencils and the chalkboard were yesterday. This connectivity can unleash innovation that improves the way teachers, students, and adults prepare to face the opportunities and challenges of a 21st-century economy.

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) met the challenge of sizing the E-Rate program to the new age of broadband. The FCC adopted two modernization orders designed to speed the deployment of high-speed broadband by widening the effective options available to schools, including through the use of so-called “special construction” projects in which fiber is installed or otherwise provisioned.

The FCC adopted three goals for the E-Rate program:

  1. Ensure affordable access to high-speed broadband sufficient to support digital learning in schools and robust connectivity for all libraries,
  2. Maximize the cost-effectiveness of spending for E-rate supported purchases, and
  3. Make the E-rate application process and other E-rate processes fast, simple and efficient.

The FCC also adopted rules to increase pricing transparency to help schools and libraries find the best prices for E-rate services. Specifically, the FCC required the E-rate’s administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), to make publicly available on its website information regarding services and equipment purchased by school and libraries.

The FCC established performance goals adequate to support the broadband mission. For schools, the FCC “set a high-speed broadband Internet access target of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff in the short term and 1 Gbps per 1,000 users in the longer term.”

Fiber networks are often essential for enabling schools to cost-effectively scale their speeds to meet the demands of learners and achieve the FCC’s speed goals.

As the FCC explained, “the E-rate program must evolve to focus on providing support for the high-speed broadband that schools need to take advantage of bandwidth-intensive digital learning technologies.... Access to high-speed broadband is crucial to improving educational experiences and expanding opportunities for all of our nation’s students, teachers, parents and communities.”

Emphasizing the need for high-speed broadband, the FCC pointed to the potential that broadband provides for cutting-edge science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education; customized learning; better assessments and analytical tools that can help parents track their child’s progress; and increased opportunity for collaborative distance learning.

These modernization efforts have proven to be enormously successful—extending gigabit broadband to schools, Wi-Fi to every classroom and library, and opportunity to every child it has touched. According to Connect K-12, at least 67 percent of school districts across the country are now meeting the FCC’s bandwidth goal of 1 Mbps per student.

The E-Rate program is working and will be critical to extending the essential broadband connections necessary for the estimated 23.5 million students attending schools that still lack adequate bandwidth to support digital learning in every classroom, every day. 

The importance of broadband connections to public institutions is only becoming more critical.

Today, the goal of bringing broadband to schools and libraries remains absolutely vital. To be unconnected from broadband is more and more of a disadvantage in America today. And, if anything, the importance of broadband connections to public institutions is only becoming more critical. The pandemic changed everything, and we all learned a lot. Now we know the pandemic created devastating new inequalities in learning loss, compounding racial disparities in learning, and sparking a plea from educators to create more learning opportunities outside of class to enable students to do homework at home, on the bus, or in libraries.  As President Joseph Biden says, “No parent should have to park in front of a fast-food restaurant in order to access Wi-Fi for their child's homework.”  Today’s students need broadband where they learn, not just where they go to school (a phenomenon that FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel rightly termed as the “homework gap”). We need to make sure our students can "Learn Without Limits.”  And, as trusted guides, libraries are increasingly important as institutions where digital inequality can be combatted.

For more of my thinking about the Importance of the Universal Service Fund see:

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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By Adrianne B. Furniss.