E-rate reform: A sustainable path forward for school and library connectivity

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[Commentary] A year ago, President Barack Obama unveiled the ConnectED initiative, declaring that his goal was to connect virtually every school in the United States to high-speed Internet by the end of the decade.

A key piece of the Administration's plan is reforming the Federal Communications Commission's E-rate program, which subsidizes communications services for schools and libraries across the country.

Earlier in June, a diverse coalition of over 100 organizations from the education sector, technology, and business communities (including the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute and Education Policy Program) sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to modernize and expand the E-rate program. The letter outlines a series of joint recommendations which include upgrading E-rate to provide schools and libraries not just with Internet connectivity but also sufficient capacity to use new digital learning tools; prioritizing funding to support both high-speed broadband to the premises and ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity over other, outdated technologies; incentivizing schools and libraries to purchase connectivity more efficiently; and simplifying the program to streamline the application process.

The letter also urges the FCC to set clear targets for connectivity moving forward, to improve data collection practices and program transparency, and to commit to reviewing E-rate's goals every four years. The proposed reforms would address some of these concerns but not all. Focusing on infrastructure investments is the key to E-rate's ability to meet the goal of providing a gigabit of capacity per 1,000 students by the end of the decade.

While Wi-Fi upgrades are needed so that students, teachers and library patrons can access the Internet on their individual devices, these improvements must be made in conjunction with significant investments in broadband infrastructure that increase overall capacity at their institutions.

[Kehl is a policy analyst; Morris is a senior policy counsel, for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation]

E-rate reform: A sustainable path forward for school and library connectivity