ConnectED and Modernizing the FCC's E-rate Program

The E-rate program (more formally known as the schools and libraries universal service support mechanism) was established in 1997 and represents the federal government’s largest education technology program. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet; to date, the E-rate program has successfully connected virtually all U.S. schools and libraries (97% of U.S. classrooms) to the Internet.

On June 6, 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled an initiative called ConnectED to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years, calling on the Federal Communications Commission to modernize and leverage its existing E-rate program to meet that goal. The President also directed the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get Internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. The potential benefits of ConnectED and faster Internet connections to and within schools and libraries are enormous.

On June 26, 2014, the FCC and the U.S. General Services Administration entered into an agreement to partner to deliver to schools and libraries the opportunity to consolidate their purchasing power and save significant money on wireless access points, routers, and the other equipment they need to deploy modern, robust Wi-Fi networks. Specifically, the two agencies agreed to work together to establish blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) administered by GSA's National Information Technology Commodity Program (NITCP) for the benefit of E-rate eligible schools and libraries. Once implemented, the BPAs would allow schools and libraries to utilize the GSA's reverse auction platform to seek bids from equipment vendors at prices even better than those already available under the relevant GSA schedule. On July 11, 2014, the FCC adopted new E-rate administration rules, streamlining the program, making it faster, simpler, and more efficient. The new rules focused on cost-effectiveness of all E-rate spending through greater pricing transparency, encouraging consortia and bulk purchasing, and better enforcement of existing rules. The reform also migrated E-rate support from traditional non-broadband services to focus on external broadband connections and Wi-Fi connectivity to students. The new rules:

  • Significantly expanded funding for Wi-Fi networks and distributed it fairly to all schools and libraries while recognizing the needs of the nation’s rural and poorest school districts;
  • Maximized the cost-effectiveness of E-rate spending through greater pricing transparency, encouraging consortia and bulk purchasing, and better enforcement of existing rules; and
  • Streamlined and simplified the E-rate application process and overall program administration.

The FCC action was taken in time to support $2 billion in Wi-Fi upgrades across the country beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. The FCC said the cost of the program would be covered by unused funds and administrative cost-cutting. After internal discussion, the agency decided to continue to prioritize requests for Internet access to schools over requests for Wi-Fi. To close what the FCC called the “Wi-Fi Gap”, the new rules:

  • Set an annual funding target of $1 billion for Wi-Fi while ensuring support continues to be available for broadband connectivity to schools and libraries;
  • Directed at least $1 billion in support for Wi-Fi for Funding Years 2015 and 2016 to connect over 10 million students and thousands of libraries each year by establishing reasonable budgets for applicants;
  • Allowed support for Wi-Fi purchased as a managed service and caching servers through the new internal connections funding mechanism;
  • Increased support targeted for Wi-Fi in rural school districts substantially – a nearly 75 percent increase; and targets a nearly 60 percent increase in urban and suburban districts;
  • Began a multi-year transition of all program funding to broadband, by gradually phasing down support for non-broadband services; and
  • Adopted clear broadband goals to measure overall program success, while maintaining local flexibility to determine the needs of individual schools and libraries.

On December 11, 2014, the FCC approved additional E-rate funding for libraries and schools to purchase broadband connectivity capable of delivering gigabit service over the next five years. The newest FCC rules raise the spending cap on the E-rate program from the current $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion -- the first reset of the cap since it was initially set at $2.25 million in 1997, an amount that wasn’t adjusted for inflation until 2010. In addition to spending, the FCC action also improves the overall administration of the program and maximizes the options schools and libraries have for purchasing affordable high-speed broadband connectivity by:

  • Suspending the requirement that applicants seek funding for large up front construction costs over several years, and allowing applicants to pay their share of one-time, up-front construction costs over multiple years;
  • Equalizing the treatment of schools and libraries seeking support for dark fiber with those seeking support for lit fiber. Dark fiber leases allow the purchase of capacity without the service of transmitting data – lighting the fiber. Dark fiber can be an especially cost-effective option for smaller, rural districts;
  • Allowing schools and libraries to build high-speed broadband facilities themselves when that is the most cost-effective option, subject to a number of safeguards;
  • Providing an incentive for state support of last-mile broadband facilities through a match from E-rate of up to 10% of the cost of construction, with special consideration for Tribal schools;
  • Requiring carriers that receive subsidies from the universal service program for rural areas – called the High Cost Program – to offer high-speed broadband to schools and libraries located in geographic areas receiving those subsidies at rates reasonably comparable to similar services in urban areas; and
  • Increasing the certainty and predictability of funding for Wi-Fi by expanding the five-year budget approach to provide more equitable support for internal connections – known as category two – through funding year 2019.

In addition to the FCC action, President Obama welcomed $750 million in private-sector commitments to education technology. The following companies participated:

  • Apple pledged $100 million in iPads, MacBooks, and other products, along with content and professional development tools to enrich learning in disadvantaged U.S. schools. (The application process launched in June 2014. See more on Apple and ConnectED)
  • AT&T pledged more than $100 million to give middle school students free Internet connectivity for educational devices over their wireless network for three years.
  • Autodesk pledged to make their 3D design program "Design the Future" available for free in every secondary school in the U.S. -- more than $250 million in value.
  • Microsoft promised to deeply discount the price of its Windows operating system for all U.S. public schools.
  • O'Reilly Media partnered with Safari Books Online to make more than $100 million in educational content and tools available for free to every school in the U.S.
  • Sprint offered free wireless service for up to 50,000 low-income high school students over the next four years, valued at $100 million.
  • Verizon announced a multi-year program to support ConnectED through up to $100 million in cash and in-kind commitments.

For more on the story of E-rate reform and modernization, please see A Year in Review: Bringing Big Broadband to Better Education.

President Obama Speaks on Technology in Schools

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President Obama Speaks to ConnectED Champions of Change

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