Funding a Modern, Robust and Efficient E-Rate Program

On November 8, the Benton Foundation urged the Federal Communications Commission to make high-capacity broadband more available and affordable for the nation’s schools and libraries. For years, the FCC’s E-rate program has helped to bring basic Internet access and technology to the classroom. But if students, teachers, parents and whole communities are to take advantage of digital learning technologies, technologies that hold the promise of substantially improving educational experiences and expanding opportunity, the challenge no longer is basic access – it is about capacity.

Technology provides students of all backgrounds and in all locations with a more equitable educational environment. Community anchor institutions like schools and libraries rely on broadband technology to efficiently connect all students to instructional resources, to expedite teacher training, to provide individualized student resources, to complete uniform assessments, and to build community resources that help connect adults to job training and social services. However these improvements rely on one common building block, high-capacity broadband networks. For schools and libraries to be prepared to address today’s and tomorrow’s educational challenges, they must have access to a robust and high-capacity broadband infrastructure that will last for decades to come.

A key decision before the FCC is what level to properly fund the E-rate program. Schools and libraries recognize the critical importance of broadband infrastructure and this is reflected in the growing demand for E-Rate funding. According to the State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance, the annual demand for E-Rate has grown by more than 150% while the actual annual growth of the fund is 6%. To support and effectively meet the growing technology needs of schools and libraries both today and for the future, the FCC, in Benton’s estimation, must expand funding for the E-Rate program. As we read through the many filings in the initial round of public comments, we saw that many stakeholders made it clear that E-Rate funds fail to meet current demand levels and, if funding is left at the current level, it will also fail to meet future growth. For example, Funds for Learning estimates that by fiscal year 2015, 84% of libraries and 69% of schools will be denied funding entirely. The National Association of Elementary School Principals notes concern that if the FCC does not expand and modernize the E-Rate program, the Commission will be unable to meet the demands of schools for high-capacity broadband technology, which educators need to prepare students for a 21st century global workforce.

An increase in E-Rate funding could also provide much needed support for the expansion of broadband to vulnerable populations in remote and rural areas. The Vermont Agency of Education emphasizes the importance of a “further increase in the amounts of E-Rate funding available for schools and libraries in rural areas. Costs are high in last mile connections and schools in rural areas often are in high poverty areas as well.

At stake in the FCC’s deliberations is the ability to participate in next-generation learning and assessment. A failure to adequately meet the growing capacity demands of education will disrupt student learning as well as teacher accountability reforms being implemented in the states.

To ensure our schools and libraries effectively address educational needs, the FCC must modernize and enhance the E-Rate program. The growing demand for E-Rate funding outstrips the program’s cap.

Later this week, I’ll be writing more on the benefits of connected schools and libraries and the importance of high-capcity broadband to education. My colleagues at the Benton Foundation are tracking the debate on modernizing the E-rate program to meet the educational needs of today and tomorrow. We hope you’ll join the discussion about getting America’s students ahead by connecting them to the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Amina Fazlullah is the Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation, working to address the communication needs of vulnerable communities. Since 2010 Ms. Fazlullah has led the Benton Foundation's work on reforming the Federal Communications Commission's universal service programs with a specific focus on the Lifeline and E-rate programs. She works on the Benton Foundation's efforts to develop and support important consumer protection policies which help vulnerable communities access, adopt and utilize broadband and voice services. Ms. Fazlullah is also responsible for the Benton Foundation's efforts around spectrum policy and children's online privacy.