The FCC and the Drive for E-rate 2.0

On July 19, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission launched a major effort to review and modernize the E-rate program (more formally known as the schools and libraries universal service support mechanism) which helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections.

Created by provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the E-rate is the federal government’s largest education technology program. In 1996, only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet and most schools with Internet access (74 percent) used dial-up Internet access. By 2005, nearly all schools had access to the Internet, and 94 percent of all instructional classrooms had Internet access. Similarly, by 2006, nearly all public libraries were connected to the Internet, and 98 percent of them offered public Internet access.

Increasingly, however, schools and libraries require high-capacity broadband 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 more and more educators turn to online resources and capabilities, the strain on district networks increases.

Bandwidth Demands in Schools
The growing popularity of online learning tools and web-based content (including rich media such as videos), the arrival of interactive digital textbooks, the advent of online assessments, and the increasing dependence on the web for professional development all contribute to the rapidly increasing flow of digital traffic demanding more bandwidth.

High-capacity broadband connectivity, combined with cutting-edge educational tools and content, is transforming learning by providing 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.

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.

The recent New Media Consortium Horizon Report identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe. The following trends are likely to be key drivers of educational technology decisions in the coming years:

  1. Education paradigms are shifting to include online learning, hybrid learning, and collaborative models.
  2. Social media is changing the way people interact, present ideas and information, and communicate.
  3. Openness — concepts like open content, open data, and open resources, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information — is becoming a value.
  4. As the cost of technology drops and school districts revise and open up their access policies, it is becoming more common for students to bring their own mobile devices.
  5. The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is challenging educators to revisit their roles.

Bandwidth Demands in Libraries
Through equitable public access to information and telecommunications services, trained staff, and relevant digital content, libraries are trusted community institution supporting digital opportunity.

According to a 2010 study from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), about one-third of Americans used library computers in one year, and the three most common uses they report are: education (42 percent), employment(40 percent) and health (37 percent). Thirty million people relied on library public access technology for job search resources and assistance in one year. Of these, 76 percent used the library’s computers or Internet access for their job search, and 23 percent received job-related training at the library.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s January 2013 report, Library Services in the Digital Age, finds that the availability of free computers and Internet access (including Wi-Fi) now rivals book lending as a vital library service. In a national survey of Americans ages 16 and older, 77 percent say free access to computers and the Internet is a “very important service” of libraries, while 80 percent say the same for borrowing books.

High-capacity broadband access provides library 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 lifelong learning; and stay in touch with friends and family. Libraries are uniquely important because they provide Internet access to all residents in communities they serve. In addition, libraries support distance learning and continuing education for college and adult students.

The American Library Association (ALA) argues that all types of libraries – public, school and academic - need affordable “big pipe” broadband connectivity to meet the ever-increasing needs of library users. Many libraries report that speeds are insufficient to meet their growing needs. An annual survey done by the 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. 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.

The First Wave of E-Rate Reform
In 2010, the FCC adopted some E-rate reform measures to address increasing technological needs of schools and libraries in response to recommendations made in the National Broadband Plan. (1) The 2010 reforms provide greater flexibility to schools and libraries in their selection of the most cost-effective broadband services. The FCC:

  • allowed schools and libraries to lease dark fiber from any entity, including state, municipal or regional research networks and utility companies;
  • made permanent a rule to allow schools to open their facilities to the public when schools are not in session so that community members may use the school’s E-rate supported services on the school’s campus; and
  • established the Learning On-The-Go pilot program to investigate the merits and challenges of wireless off-premises connectivity services for mobile learning devices

Increased Broadband Capacity: Affordable Access to 21st Century Broadband that Supports Digital Learning
The challenge we now face – as identified by the FCC, President Barack Obama,(2) and Members of Congress(3) -- is modernizing the E-rate to ensure that our nation’s students and communities have access to high-capacity broadband connections that support digital learning while making sure that the program remains fiscally responsible and fair to the consumers and businesses that pay into the universal service fund (USF or Fund), the mechanism created to pay for the E-rate and other programs aimed at keeping telecommunications available and affordable to all Americans. The FCC cites strong evidence and growing consensus that the E-rate needs to sharpen its focus and provide schools and libraries with high-capacity broadband connections.

Although the FCC’s effort has three main goals -- Increased Broadband Capacity, Cost-effective Purchasing, and Streamlined Program Administration – we focus on just the first this week: ensuring that schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st Century broadband that supports digital learning. This goal has two components:

  • The first requires that all schools and libraries have access to high-capacity broadband connectivity necessary to support digital learning.
  • The second is that schools and libraries be able to afford such services.

To ensure schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband, the FCC seeks comment on a range of proposals to focus funds on supporting high-capacity broadband, including: simplifying rules on fiber deployment to lower barriers to new construction; prioritizing funding for new fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency; phasing out support for services like paging and directory assistance; ensuring that schools and libraries can access funding for modern high-speed Wi-Fi networks in classrooms and library buildings; and allocating funding on a simplified, per-student basis.

Performance Goals and Measures
In order to gauge effectiveness and efficiency, the FCC proposes adopting performance goals and measures. Assessing the contribution of digital learning and E-rate funded connectivity towards student outcomes may guide schools in determining the bandwidth and usage of broadband that are most effective as well as provide the FCC guidance in ensuring that universal service dollars are efficiently spent. The FCC asks: Is there a way to measure how success in the classroom is affected by access to E-rate funding or services supported by E-rate? Is there a way to measure how success in the classroom is affected by access to E-rate funding or access to Internet access services?

For the Increased Broadband Capacity goal, the FCC proposes benchmarking the performance of schools’ and libraries’ broadband connections against specific speed targets. The FCC seeks public input on other measures of the availability and affordability of high-capacity broadband to schools and the educational impact of high-capacity broadband in the classroom.

The FCC seeks comment on how to define “broadband that supports digital learning” for purposes of measuring progress toward this goal. President Obama’s ConnectED initiative set a target of at least 100 Mbps service with a target of 1 Gbps to most schools and libraries within 5 years. The ConnectED proposals are consistent with those made by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA). According to SETDA, in order to have sufficient broadband access for enhanced teaching and learning, K-12 schools will need Internet connections of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff (users) by the 2014-15 school year and at least 1 Gbps Internet access per 1,000 users by the 2017-18 school year. The FCC seeks comment on adopting the SETDA target of ensuring that schools have 100 Mbps per 1,000 users increasing to 1 Gbps per 1,000 users. SETDA also recommends that a school within a district have Wide Area Network (WAN) connectivity to other schools within their district of at least 10 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-2018. The FCC also seeks comment on adopting that target for WAN connectivity. The FCC asks: Are the SETDA targets appropriate for all schools? How much capacity do schools currently use? How are schools’ bandwidth needs changing, particularly in those schools that have one-to-one device initiatives? What is the appropriate bandwidth target for libraries?

President Obama also called for high-capacity connectivity within schools. Should all schools have internal wireless networks capable of supporting one-to-one device Initiatives. Should libraries have comparable wireless connectivity? Should the FCC define connectivity in Mbps of wireless capacity available per-student in classrooms, school libraries, and other areas of schools?

The simplest measure of broadband availability and affordability for schools and libraries may be to observe whether eligible schools and libraries are purchasing broadband services that meet the FCC’s proposed speed benchmarks. The FCC asks for comment on whether to measure school and library broadband speeds as one metric of broadband availability and affordability. If so, what’s the best way to collect data on the speed and
quality of school and library connections? Should the FCC require that E-rate applicants provide specific information about the bandwidth or speed for which they seek funding? Should the FCC make that information publicly available? Should there be specific, required mechanisms for making the information public?

The FCC also seeks input on other methods it should consider adopting for measuring broadband performance, including not only bandwidth available but actual usage as well. Should the FCC conduct an annual or biennial survey to assess the broadband capability of schools and libraries?

As part of measuring progress towards the goal of ensuring eligible schools and libraries have affordable access to high-capacity broadband at speeds that will support digital learning, the FCC seek comment on how to measure high-capacity broadband availability and affordability and the metrics that should be used.

To measure availability, should the FCC use the National Broadband Map to estimate what fraction of schools and libraries have access to at least one broadband provider within the same census block offering broadband at speeds that meet the proposed performance metrics? Should the FCC supplement National Broadband Map data with other information?

To measure affordability, the FCC could benchmark the post-discount prices paid by schools for broadband connections against some objective measure. The FCC asks what measures could be used?

Tracking E-Rate Reform
The FCC's adoption of a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking is just one step in a long process to update the E-rate. For now, the public has until September 16 to file initial comments in this proceeding and then until October 16 to review and reply to comments submitted by others. Then it will take some time for the FCC to make sense of all the advise it gets.

To help you keep track of this process, the Benton Foundation created an online resource where you'll find the latest news, analysis and research we've found on bringing affordable, high-capacity broadband to schools and libraries. We also provide links to hearings and meetings on the issue -- as well as all the public comment filings the FCC receives. This resource will be updated daily.

1) Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan; Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, A National Broadband Plan for our Future, CC Docket No. 02-6, GN Docket No. 09-51, Order, 25 FCC Rcd 18762 (2010).
2) As we reported last month, President Obama proposed connecting 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 called on the FCC to modernize and leverage the E-rate program to help meet those targets.
3) The most vocal leader in Congress is Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) who co-authored the provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which created the E-rate. See, for example, Promises Made, Promises Kept

By Kevin Taglang.