Obama, Wheeler Put Real Money into ConnectED, E-Rate Broadband

Obama, Wheeler Put Real Money into ConnectED, E-Rate Broadband

“Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.”
-- President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address

On January 28, 2014, President Barack Obama again highlighted efforts to bring high-capacity broadband connections to the nation’s schools and libraries. And the words marked a new flurry of activity. Fundamental reforms of the E-rate program have been underway at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for months, aiming to make good on the President’s initiative to bring next-generation Internet connectivity to 99 percent of American classrooms within the next five years. President Obama asked the FCC to modernize an existing Universal Service Fund (USF) program, the E-rate, to help schools and libraries pay for more bandwidth -- a gigabit of capacity for every 1000 students.

After the State of the Union speech, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler released a statement saying, “Harnessing the power of digital technology is central to improving our education system and our global competitiveness. In the Internet age, every student in America should have access to state-of-the-art educational tools, which are increasingly interactive, individualized and bandwidth-intensive. The Federal Communications Commission shares the President’s commitment to seizing the opportunities of digital learning, which is why we’ve already launched an effort to modernize our successful E-rate program – the nation’s largest education technology program. By applying business-like management practices to E-rate, we can take steps this year that will make existing funds go farther to significantly increase our investment in high-speed broadband connectivity for schools and libraries for the benefit of our students and teachers. Together, with my fellow Commissioners, Congress, educators and other stakeholders, we can ensure that all of America’s students get a 21st-century education.”

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, of which the Benton Foundation is a member, noted that “Anchor institutions are equivalent to the ‘third leg of the stool’ for a healthy and economically vibrant community. Schools, libraries, health care providers, community colleges, community centers, and public media all across America, especially in rural areas, need super-fast broadband connections so that ALL members of the general public can participate in the 21st century economy. We especially appreciate FCC Chairman Wheeler’s recognition that the E-rate program includes libraries as well as schools, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Obama Administration as it moves forward to modernize the E-rate program.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the FCC has found that 80 percent of schools do not believe that their broadband capacity meets their educational needs. The FCC found that “too many of our schools rely on speeds as low as 3 [megabits per second] -- that is lower than the typical American household but there are students using it--so imagine there are 200 times as many people using it,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said.

On January 30, non-profit EducationSuperHighway (1) organized a group of 40 CEOs in a letter for the FCC to prioritize broadband investment in schools. “To ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to participate in the knowledge economy, we must connect our schools to fiber and deploy ubiquitous wireless networks to all of our classrooms,” wrote the heads of American Express, Dell, eBay, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, and others. “This is about preparing a new work force,” said Evan Marwell, the chief executive of EducationSuperHighway. “The CEO's get that; both sides of the aisle in Congress get that.” Marwell’s organization figures a school now needs about 100 megabits a second, and will need 10 times that speed in three years. In addition, schools should have wireless connectivity capable of handling up to 40 devices per classroom. Only about 30 percent of schools have real high-speed connectivity, and only 40 percent can provision students with Wi-Fi. “They spend about $2.4 billion a year, and about half the money goes to things like voice services, e-mail, and web hosting,” he said. “We need to focus on broadband.”

Increased funding for broadband connectivity to schools would be "a gift in rural America," said Clark Godshall, the district superintendent for the Orleans/Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services, an educational service agency based in New York. “Without it, we'll do the old 'chalk and talk' and those days are gone because it's not working anymore.”

Sen Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai reacted to the State of the Union address with an op-ed published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on February 1. They argue that the E-rate program is leaving students in rural America behind. The way funding is currently distributed, states like New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, and South Dakota get the least E-rate funding per student. The authors blame administrative hurdles in the E-Rate application process that lead to schools needing to hire outside consultants to navigate the process for them -- an option that many schools, especially small and rural ones, can't afford. Ayotte and Pai argue for a “student-centered” E-rate program: a simplified application process and a more equitable per-student distribution of E-rate funds.

On February 3, the FCC announced it will invest an additional $2 billion over the next two years to support broadband networks in schools and libraries. This represents a doubling of investment in broadband and will, the FCC says, connect 20 million students in at least 15,000 schools to high-speed Internet access. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler characterized the investment as a “down-payment” on reaching President Obama’s goal. Funding for new investments in high-speed Internet will come from reprioritizing existing E-rate funds to focus on high-capacity Internet connectivity, increasing efficiency, and modernizing management of the E-rate program. The new investment in broadband will be one element of a comprehensive approach to modernizing E-rate. The FCC will also streamline the application process, increase transparency, and provide more assistance to schools and libraries to help them lower the prices they pay. In addition, the FCC will ramp up oversight and enforcement within the program to ensure every dollar that is intended to reach a school or library gets there.

President Obama visited Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, on February 4 to announce that a handful of companies committed more than $750 million to deliver cutting-edge technologies to classrooms, including:

  • Apple, which will donate $100 million in iPads, MacBooks, and other products, along with content and professional development tools to enrich learning in disadvantaged U.S. schools;
  • AT&T, which pledged more than $100 million to give middle school students free Internet connectivity for educational devices over their wireless network for three years;
  • Autodesk, which 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, which will launch a substantial affordability program open to all U.S. public schools by deeply discounting the price of its Windows operating system, which will decrease the price of Windows-based devices;
  • O'Reilly Media, which is partnering 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, which will offer free wireless service for up to 50,000 low-income high school students over the next four years, valued at $100 million; and
  • Verizon, which announced a multi-year program to support ConnectED through up to $100 million in cash and in-kind commitments.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced $16 million in grants to improve distance learning and telemedicine services in 25 states. The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loan and Grant program provides funding to rural hospitals, clinics, schools and libraries for equipment and technical assistance for telemedicine and distance learning. Grant recipients must demonstrate that they serve rural America, prove there is an economic need and provide at least 15 percent in matching funds.

Responding to the President’s announcement, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said, “It’s imperative that we expand high-speed broadband connections to our schools and libraries, and the President’s announcement about private sector donations to bring technology and training to schools and students is a valuable complement to that expansion. I appreciate these companies stepping up to provide our school children with important digital learning tools and services, and I look forward to working with them and the FCC on the larger effort to update and strengthen the successful E-Rate program. Every child in America deserves the bright future that can come with an expanded E-Rate in our nation’s classrooms and libraries.”

But House Republicans were less enthusiastic. House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said, “Getting groundbreaking and innovative technologies to students across the country is a mission we all share, but we must do so in a cost effective and fiscally responsible manner. We look forward to getting additional details from Chairman Wheeler tomorrow and hope to see the administration’s proposal referred to the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service where it will benefit from the board’s significant analysis and expertise. By following an open and transparent process, we can all work together to ensure that children across the country have access to the tools they need to succeed in the information age without reliving the mistakes made with the broadband stimulus programs.” (2) On January 30 House and Senate Republican leaders sent the FCC’s Wheeler a letter urging fiscal restraint in any effort to further expand the E-rate program. FCC Commissioner Pai has also warned against increased contribution rates.

As part of National Digital Learning Day (February 5), FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered a speech on the importance of broadband connections for libraries and schools – and E-rate modernization. Wheeler announced that the FCC will complete changes to the E-rate program this spring and separately will consider increasing the fees paid by consumers or phone companies to finance the effort. Wheeler said that any increase in the fees would be preceded by a restructuring of how the current $2.4 billion annual program spends its money. “Should it be necessary to increase the permanent funding levels for the E-rate program, we will do what is appropriate,” he said.

"When 80 percent of teachers and administrators in schools participating in the E-rate program say they do not have the bandwidth necessary to meet their educational needs, we have a problem that must be fixed," Chairman Wheeler said. "When roughly half the E-rate schools access the Internet at speeds that are slower than what many Americans have in their homes -- and try to serve hundreds of students (as opposed to the few users in any one home) -- we have a crisis that undermines our nation’s future. We cannot -- we will not -- let those statistics continue," he said.

Wheeler proposed three ways to improve the E-rate:

  1. Applications that get the most students the most broadband will be reviewed and approved more quickly, and this doesn’t just mean students in large metropolitan areas.
  2. Old applications will be reviewed in a more efficient manner.
  3. Funds will focus on libraries. [We can’t miss the opportunity to point you to three great statements on the importance of libraries and broadband. See America’s Libraries Are Rung on Ladder of Opportunity; Mr. President: Where Have Libraries Gone?; and FCC: The Time is Now to Speed Library Broadband Connections]

“The intent is not to tear down the existing program and start over,” Wheeler explained. “Rather, we should restructure the program in a way that results in a process that effectively targets high capacity connections to all libraries and schools and to provide resources to make sure high-speed Wi-Fi delivers that connectivity within the classroom and the library.” In coming months, the FCC will begin accepting public comments on ways to restructure the effort to focus on high-speed Internet access and help as many students as possible.

Chairman Rockefeller responded to Wheeler’s speech saying, "While I welcome Chairman Wheeler’s announcement today of an important down payment for our students’ future, I strongly believe any update of E-Rate also must devote additional long-term support to the program. The case for increasing E-Rate support already has been made. For more than a decade, demand for E-Rate support by our Nation’s schools and libraries has outstripped supply by two-to-one." Sen Ed Markey (D-MA) said, “Now is the time to expand and accelerate high-speed connections to ensure that all Americans -- both young and old -- have the digital skills they need to compete in the 21st century economy.”

The Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, which was created by the FCC and Department of Education to promote student access to technology, applauded both the Obama and Wheeler announcements. "As our recent poll shows, voters overwhelmingly support efforts like those announced this week by President Obama and the FCC to expand high-speed broadband access to 99 percent of schools within five years in order to improve education," said the commission. "We strongly support those efforts and commend FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for his continued work to reform the E-Rate program in order to expand access for all students.”

“This is a critical step forward and for the President to champion it is gratifying,” said Jim Steyer, the Chief Executive Officer of Common Sense Media and a LEAD Commissioner. “If you don't put the fundamental infrastructure in place, all the incredibly innovative stuff being built in Silicon Valley, none of it can be used by a 5th grader in rural North Carolina.”

The LEAD Commission and Benenson Strategy Group found that a majority of American adults rate the current state of technology in US public schools with a mediocre C grade or worse and fully support the implementation of better access to high-speed Internet in classrooms to help improve that grade. Both parents and nonparents believe the current lack of access to acceptable technology renders students unprepared to compete on a global scale or obtain the necessary technology skills to succeed in 21st century jobs. Investing in high-speed Internet access for public schools is believed to be mandatory in helping develop the next generation of innovative leaders in the United States, according to the report. There is a concern that American students will continue to fall behind children in other countries, especially those in rural areas, if this does not change soon. Most notably, respondents to the poll still supported expanding broadband access after they were told they would have to pay out of pocket to support the program through a temporary fee charged through their cellphones (users would pay roughly $4 a year for three years.)

The FCC isn’t just considering broadband connectivity within its E-rate reform efforts. In inviting experiments to retire traditional telephone services, the FCC made a point that it wants to understand how the IP Transition will impact anchor institutions -- schools, libraries, health care providers -- and the people they serve. What types of services will be offered to anchor institutions that are served by next generation networks financed in part with universal service support for rural areas, and at what price? The FCC wants to know how the business case for deployment in rural areas, including Tribal lands, can be improved by securing the participation of anchor institutions to serve as key customers of next generation networks. The FCC hopes to identify strategies to ensure that community-based institutions in rural areas, such as schools, libraries and health care providers, have access to next generation services.

“If we continue on this pace and stay on this trajectory we will not be able to bring real digital learning to our schools,” FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel said. “That means no high definition streaming video; it means no innovative teaching tools; it means we will not be able to prepare the next generation for the science and technology, engineering and math skills that are so essential to compete.”

The recent flurry of E-rate activity is bound to continue in the weeks and months ahead. To follow it all, see Benton’s ConnectED and Modernizing the FCC's E-rate Program. And, ‘til next week, we’ll see you in the Headlines.


Notes:
  1. Benton Foundation board member Jim Kohlenberger works with EducationSuperHighway
  2. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration invested in roughly 230 projects nationwide to expand access to and use of broadband. Supported network infrastructure projects are linking approximately 10,000 educational institutions to high-speed Internet. Digital literacy training and broadband adoption programs are ensuring that teachers, students and parents have the skills and resources to take advantage of these high-speed connections. And public computer center projects are providing Internet access to those who don’t have it at home.

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